Posted on Apr 26, 2019, 4 p.m.
Strict new guidelines on one of the most anxiety producing issues of modern day family life have been announced by The World Health Organization regarding how much time should be allowed for children to use or be distracted with screen time in their “To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more” report.
According to W.H.O children under one year old should never be allowed, children under 2 years old should be allowed very rarely, and children aged 2-4 years old should spend no more than a maximum of an hour a day in front of a screen.
Guidelines were based on emerging science on the risks screen time poses to development of young minds at a time when surveys are showing children are spending increasing amounts of time watching smartphones or other mobile devices. 95% of families with kids under under the age of 8 have a smartphone, and 42% of children under the age of 8 have access to their own tablet according to the organization.
Child development experts say acquisition of language and social skills is typically gained by interactions with parents and other children, and these are among the most important cognitive tasks of childhood. “Early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains.” says W.H.O Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Guidelines such as these have been weighed in by public health groups to help provided rules for the realities of parenting, such as when parents resort to videos and games to distract fussy children, or how often a toddler should be able to engage with a relative overseas online who may have no other means of seeing them. However these strict rules sometimes generate more guilt that useful corrections in parenting decisions.
“It induces a real conflict, the more guidelines we give, it just seems like there’s going to be more of a mismatch between what experts say … and what it feels like to be a parent in the real world every day.” says Jenny Radesky of the University of Michigan.
Over the past year a number of tools have been introduced to help limit children’s screen time which could go further by improving those tools and designing services in ways less likely to encourage heavy use by children. Features that discourage breaks such as autoplay features are frequently complained about by consumer advocates who say companies are encouraging compulsive behavior in children who lack in self control.
This announcement by the public health agency adds authoritative international weight to the push for limiting the amount of time children spend in front of screens when access to mobile devices appears to be growing rapidly around the globe.
Once mainly found in affluent countries such as the USA smartphone numbers now measure in the billions, along with other mobile devices these are now the main portal to the interwebs for much of the world. Youtube alone has a global audience of well over 2 billion people, and it is one of the most popular among children, adding to the debates from advocates for measures to curb exposure of children while scientists continue to study the effects of screens of brain development.
“It’s extraordinarily important that someone with the authority and reach of the WHO is saying this. Screen time is not essential to learning, and it’s not effective at teaching,” said Josh Golin of the Campaign for a Commercial Free-Childhood.
The W.H.O guidelines track with those of other public health groups which typically promote limited screen time and copious amounts of personal interaction for preschoolers and sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests to make an exception to allow live video chatting, and that children closer to 2 may benefit from occasionally viewing educational videos, but overall suggests “parents should prioritize creative, unplugged play time for infants and toddlers.”
Most scientists and physicians can agree about the risks of excessive screen time for children, but lament the limitations of the studies that are available. Long term consequences can be hard to measure, and ethical concerns limit and/or prevent more in-depth experiments. Additionally there is debate over whether all screen time is equal, such as is a video of children playing or singing better or worse than having a live video chat with a traveling parent; and are interactive games better or worse than passively watching shows?
Findings from studies involving older children have associated screen time with behavioral and development issues, however research involving toddlers and babies is inconclusive. JAMA Pediatrics published a study finding screen time to delay toddler language and sociability skills. Another study published in Pediatrics found parents interact with and speak to their toddlers more when reading paper print books than when reading an ebook to their children.
“The absolute priority for very young children has to be on face-to-face interactions, physical exercise and sleep. I think the temptation to hand young children a phone or a tablet any time they fuss is misguided. Children need to learn how to self-soothe and manage their emotions. And if they’re frequently handed these devices, they don’t learn these things,” explains Jean Twenge, psychologist and author.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers have proposed legislation calling for the NIH to conduct a $40 million multi-year study on the effects of technology, screen time and online media on infants and older children.
Family Online Safety Institute say that there is an important difference between screen time and screen use. “What we don’t want is to set up a situation where parents feel shamed by the fact that they do use tablets and so on when they’re cooking, or something like that,” Stephen Balkam said. “It’s about trying to find a balance.”
Currently there really isn’t enough compelling evidence that tracks effects of screen time beyond television, children who grew up around iPads and such are not yet old enough for researchers to measure their educational or developmental growth, according to Professor Emily Oster of Brown University. “I think people need to look at this and think about the fact that these guidelines are not based on some underlying, well-researched truth and use their judgment to decide what’s going to work,” Oster said. “These ideas that kids are going to be and need to be physically active and get enough sleep — that’s a good idea, but it’s not all about screens.”
“Improving physical activity, reducing sedentary time and ensuring quality sleep in young children will improve their physical, mental health and wellbeing, and help prevent childhood obesity and associated diseases later in life,” says Dr Fiona Bull of W.H.O
Failure to meet recommendations is responsible for more than 5 million deaths across all age groups globally; currently 23% of adults and 80% of adolescents are not sufficiently physically active. If sedentary lifestyles are discouraged at an early age, and are replaced with healthy lifestyle choices to be established at critically early stages this will help to shape habits through childhood into adolescence and adulthood.
“What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” says Dr Juana Willumsen, W.H.O focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity. “This is about making the important shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep.”
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