WHO: children under 2 should not passively look at screens

The UK’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health insists there is little evidence that screen use on children is harmful on its own. These recommendations are more related to the immobile position, carried away by the screen of the child.

For the first time, WHO has provided recommendations on physical activity, sedentary lifestyle and sleep for children under the age of five. The new WHO recommendation focuses on passive browsing, where babies are placed in front of a TV/computer screen or given a tablet/phone for entertainment. This recommendation aims to combat immobility in children, a leading risk factor for global mortality and obesity-related disease. In addition to the passive screen time warning, the guidelines say that children should not be strapped into a stroller, car seat, or sling for more than an hour at a time.

WHO recommendations

For babies: 

  • Spending the day actively, including lying on your stomach
  • No sitting in front of a screen
  • 14-17 hours of sleep per day for newborns, including naps, and 12-16 hours of sleep per day for children 4-11 months of age
  • Do not fasten to a car seat or stroller for more than an hour at a time 

For children from 1 to 2 years: 

  • At least 3 hours of physical activity per day
  • No screen time for XNUMX year olds and less than an hour for XNUMX year olds
  • 11-14 hours of sleep per day, including daytime
  • Do not fasten to a car seat or stroller for more than an hour at a time 

For children from 3 to 4 years: 

  • At least 3 hours of physical activity per day, moderate to vigorous intensity is best
  • Up to an hour of sedentary screen time – the less the better
  • 10-13 hours of sleep per day including naps
  • Do not buckle up in a car seat or stroller for more than an hour at a time or sit for long periods of time

“Sedentary time should be turned into quality time. For example, reading a book with a child can help them develop their language skills,” said Dr. Juana Villumsen, co-author of the guide.

She added that some programs that encourage young children to move around while watching can be helpful, especially if an adult also joins in and leads by example.

What do other experts think?

In the US, experts believe that children should not use screens until they are 18 months old. In Canada, screens are not recommended for children under the age of two.

Dr Max Davy of the UK Royal College of Paediatrics and Children’s Health said: “The limited time limits for passive screen time proposed by the WHO do not seem to be proportionate to the potential harm. Our research has shown that there is currently insufficient evidence to support setting screen time time limits. It is difficult to see how a family with children of different ages can even protect a child from any kind of screen exposure, as recommended. Overall, these WHO recommendations provide useful guidance to help guide families towards an active and healthy lifestyle, but without proper support, the pursuit of excellence can become the enemy of good.”

Dr Tim Smith, a brain development expert at the University of London, said parents are being bombarded with conflicting advice that can be confusing: “There is currently no clear evidence for specific time limits for screen time being offered at this age. Despite this, the report takes a potentially useful step in distinguishing passive screen time from active screen time where physical activity is required.”

What can parents do?

Paula Morton, a teacher and mother of two young children, said her son learned a lot by watching programs about dinosaurs and then spouting “random facts about them.”

“He doesn’t just stare and turn off those around him. He clearly thinks and uses his brain. I don’t know how I would cook and clean if he didn’t have something to look at,” she says. 

According to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, parents may be asking themselves the question:

Do they control screen time?

Does screen use affect what your family wants to do?

Does screen use interfere with sleep?

Can you control your food intake while watching?

If the family is satisfied with their answers to these questions, then they are likely to use screen time correctly.

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