Infants younger than 1 shouldn’t be exposed to any electronic screens, according to guidelines issued Wednesday by the World Health Organization.
The agency, issuing its first such guidelines, also said that children ages 2 to 4 should have no more than one hour of “sedentary screen time” — including playing computer games or watching TV — per day. It also emphasized that young kids need to be physically active and get enough sleep, habits that go a long way in preventing obesity and other diseases later in life, the WHO said.
“Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people’s lives,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “Early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains.”
The action comes amid growing research into the developmental effects of the widespread use of computers and mobile devices by children. One of the concerns is that the mesmerizing effects of videos keep young children from connecting with their parents and others, a key facet in building the sophisticated social skills that are a central to human development.
Surveys have consistently shown that children have been exposed to rising amounts of screen time in recent years, including by parents struggling with the challenges of managing the moods and time demands of young children. Many of the most popular channels on YouTube, for example, feature nursery rhymes, simplistic games and other content that appeal to preschoolers. (YouTube long has maintained that its service is intended for those 13 or older.)
The news about the new WHO guidelines was first reported by Reuters.
The WHO guidelines went further than recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016. At the time, the AAP said that infants and toddlers younger than 18 months should only be in front of screens to video-chat with people their parents approve of. Educational shows could be introduced to kids 18 to 24 months old, but the AAP emphasized that parents should “prioritize creative, unplugged playtime for infants and toddlers.”
Babies should not be exposed to screens at all and instead engage in interactive floor-based play, the WHO said. It also recommended that kids ages 1 to 4 have at least three hours of physical activity daily.
Concerns about children and screen time began well before kids starting reaching for their parents’ iPads and smartphones, said Emily Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University and the author of “Cribsheet: a Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting.” But there isn’t yet enough compelling evidence, Oster said, tracking the effects of screens beyond a household television. Kids who grew up around iPads, for example, aren’t old enough for researchers to measure their educational or developmental growth.
Parents ultimately face choices, Oster said.
“I think people need to look at this and think about the fact that these guidelines are not based on some underlying, well-rehearsed truth and use their judgment to decide what’s going to work,” Oster said. “These ideas that kids are going to be physically active and get enough sleep — that’s a good idea, but it’s not all about screens.”
There has been a push in recent years to study what some experts call the “addictive” effects of some technologies, especially social media and online services such as YouTube that automatically play one video after another. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have proposed legislation calling for the National Institutes of Health to conduct a $40 million, multiyear study of the effect of technology, screen time and online media on infants and other children.
“Today, kids’ heads are often buried in their glowing devices, while parents are left in the dark about the impacts of that technology. As a society, we must be clear eyed about all of the implications of children’s media use,” Markey said in a statement when he introduced the bill in February.
Inadequate physical activity is directly linked to more than 5 million deaths worldwide, across all age groups, in a given year, according to the WHO. Nearly one-quarter of adults, and 80 percent of adolescents, aren’t active enough — and learn harmful habits early in life.
“What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” Juana Willumsen, a WHO expert on childhood obesity and physical activity, said in a statement. “This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep. “