World Health Organization Recommends Severely Limiting Young Children’s Screen Time

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Either you’ve done it yourself, or you’ve seen other parents do it: handing a child a smartphone or a tablet to keep them occupied for a little bit. You may think it’s fine, or you may think it’s a terrible practice. The World Health Organization (WHO) has their own opinion.

WHO recommends for children 2 to 4, precisely the age when parents are apt to try to keep them busy, that they only have one hour a day in front of a screen. Infants should have zero screen time, and those between 1 and 2 should rarely be allowed screen time.

Limiting Children’s Screen Time

You can’t blame parents for needing a break occasionally, but certainly it’s not a good practice to just toss your smartphone at them to quiet them down. Yet, these are tough guidelines.

This doesn’t mean one hour of smartphone time a day. It’s one hour of all screen time. That includes TV time, movie time, and game time for 2 to 4-year-olds. Granted, most children under one probably (hopefully!) aren’t getting screen time anyway, but 1- to 2-year-olds are probably getting screen time more than “rarely.”

To create these guidelines, WHO relied on science revolving around the risks of screens on developing young brains. Child development experts believe acquiring language and social skills through interacting with others is among one of the most important skills for them to learn.

But that can be tough when children are spending so much time on their screens. Common Sense Media, a non-profit, reports 95 percent of families with children under the age of 8 have smartphones, and 42 percent of those children have a tablet of their own.

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“Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people’s lives,” said WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 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.”

JAMA Pediatrics published a study that showed screen time could delay the language and social skills of toddlers. Another study published in Pediatrics reported that parents interacted with and spoke to their toddlers more when they read print books compared to when they read electronic books.

University of Michigan pediatrician Jenny Radesky, the author of the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, knows that’s putting a lot of pressure on parents.

“It induces a real conflict,” she said. “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.”

“The absolute priority for very young children has to be face-to-face interactions, physical exercise, and sleep,” said psychologist and author of “iGen,” a book focused on the effects of social media and tech on kids. That should obviously go without saying. Parents shouldn’t need to be told that.

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“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.”

It also needs to be noted that the studies that have been conducted are on screen time other than phones and tablets, as these devices haven’t been mainstream long enough to study their effects long term.

The Parent’s Perspective

I have adult children in their 20s. My daughter was 5 and my son 8 when I got my first cell phone. They were teenagers when I got my first iPad. So the screen time they had when they were young was TV.

That said, they still got more than that recommended amount of screen time. I had very active children and was a stay-at-home mom who worked from home. I needed a little bit of peace every day, and they needed the downtime. I did allow them to watch a little TV every day. But I balanced it. We had a larger library of children’s books than children’s videos. I read to them every day.

I think that’s what it comes down to: balance. Parents need to realize the guidelines and try to keep a good balance but not feel extreme guilt if their 3-year-old gets 90 to 120 minutes of screen time rather than just 60.

Are you a parent? How much screen time do your young children get? Add your thoughts and concerns to the comments.

5 comments

  1. “You can’t blame parents for needing a break occasionally”
    Cry me a river! If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. If you are unable be a parent, don’t have kids. It’s not like kids are an automatic result of marriage or a relationship. Having kids is a per-meditated choice just like buying a house or a 85″ OLED TV.

    How did parents get breaks before smartphones, laptops, tablets, even TV came on the scene??? Kids are not plants that will grow as long as they are watered and fed occasionally. They need attention and interaction 24/7/365. In fact, one of the tasks of parents is to protect the children from a lot of the content may see. Not only is too much screen time harmful to children but the content shown on the screen is harmful to their healthy development.

    BTW – I have two children, both now in their mid-20s so they grew up at the same time as personal computers, smartphones, etc were growing up. The kids always were a part of our daily lives. They were involved in pretty much of most of our activities. Screen time was the icing on the cake at the end of the day. It never was a baby sitter to keep them occupied and “out of our hair”.

  2. Unless you were a 24/7 stay-at-home parent, you couldn’t possibly understand the perspective. No one said I “couldn’t do the time.” Not complaining, not whining, not “crying you a river.” But when you have young children in your care 24/7 you sometimes need a little break during the day. Because yes, my kids “were a part of my daily life.” They were involved in all my activities. I did not use screen time as a “babysitter” or to keep them “out of my hair.” But occasionally, I needed a little break, and unless you were a stay-at-home parent for 21 years, you wouldn’t understand. And that’s okay. I wasn’t expecting any pity or anything. I loved my job as a stay-at-home mom and would do anything to go back to that time again with my kids. But I am also secure enough to know it’s okay to need a little bit of space sometimes. That’s normal no matter our screen time.

    1. I’m sorry if you feel that my post was directed at you. It definitely was not. I used “YOU” in its general meaning. Maybe I should have used “one” but sometimes that presents challenges in usage, too.

      “But occasionally, I needed a little break”
      That is why there are two parents so one can spell the other.

      My wife was with our kids 24/7 but that doesn’t mean it was 365. I wanted the the pleasure of their exclusive company, too. Whether spending time with me was “quality time” for them, I don’t know. They never complained and my wife certainly never complained. :-)

      BTW – how DID parents (mothers) get that “little break” before the invention of all the electronic gizmos? The kids turned out OK. The parents survived. There was less suicides among kids and parents.

      The need to use electronics to babysit kids is a First World Problem.

    2. Laura, considers that every woman is capable of being a mother and every man is capable of being a father but not all of them are capable of being a Mom or a Dad.

  3. Thanks for clarifying your position.

    If a parent needs a small break, I think it’s okay. If it’s used as a babysitter? No. Kids are all different as well with their levels of energy. I had kids who never stopped moving unless they were in front of the TV. So sometimes we would watch something together. It’s why I know every line in the Lion King backwards and forwards. I would have never have plopped my toddler in front of the TV and walked away.

    That said, screen time once computers/devices were introduced, was limited. There’s no guarantees. Those were privileges. And I think that’s what is perhaps missing with some kids. Screen time needs to be a privilege and not a right, whether they’re 2 or 16.

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