Health Experts Double Down on No Screen Time for Babies & Parents Have Strong Feelings

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A baby boy is sitting up on a bed, staring at a computer screen with a blank expression.
iStock/tatyana_tomsickova

The debate over how much screen time kids should get each day -- if any at all -- has been raging for years. But a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) has come down hard on the issue, strongly advising that children under 1 shouldn't have sedentary screen time at all and children younger than 5 should be limited to just one hour (or less) per day.

  • The report's findings stress the benefits of engaged, physical playtime, which experts recommend babies get at least 30 minutes of per day.

    (For babies who aren't yet crawling or walking, they should get at least 30 minutes of tummy time.)

    WHO also issued a detailed press release Wednesday, giving an overview of the report -- the gist of which was that in order for kids to grow up healthy, they need to sit less and play more. 

    "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," shares Dr. Fiona Bull, a program manager for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases at WHO.

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  • In fact, WHO reports that failing to meet recommendations for physical activity is responsible for more than 5 million deaths globally each year.

    And if that figure boggles your mind (which it definitely should), consider these stats: According to recent data, only 23 percent of adults and 80 percent of adolescents are physically active enough. Is it any wonder then that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates some 93.3 million American adults are currently considered obese? And that the medical costs associated with these rates climbed to $147 billion in 2015-2016?

    The hope, though, according to WHO, is that establishing healthy habits and routines early will ward off these risks later on.

  • Now, if you read this headline and immediately panicked that you've put your kid at risk, take a deep breath.

    Some of this has to be taken with a grain of salt -- after all, it's one thing to let your 4-year-old play a game on the iPad for 10 minutes and quite another to let children watch mindless videos on YouTube for hours on end.

    In fact, WHO makes a distinction in its report between sedentary screen time and non-screen-based sedentary time for this exact reason. Because it's inevitable that your child will be sedentary at times (as will you), experts recommend you try to make sure there's quality to it, whenever possible. Think reading, interacting, talking or asking questions, singing songs, or playing puzzles. These nonscreen activities keep little minds moving and boost brain development in more ways than we even know.

  • “What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” said Dr. Juana Willumsen, WHO focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity. 

    WHO recommends looking at the overall pattern of 24-hour activity, which means that although active play is important, we can't forget about the benefits of a good night's sleep -- which impacts both physical development and mental health.

    "This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep,“ Willumsem continued.

    For infants up to 3 months old, WHO recommends 14 to 17 hours of sleep per night, including naps, and around 12 to 16 hours from 4 to 11 months old. This can drop down a bit when they hit 1 or 2, so long as they're still getting 11 to 14 hours. And finally, by ages 3 to 4, kids should have 10 to 13 hours of good quality sleep each night (with or without naps).

  • WHO also issued guidelines when it comes to restraining kids in everything from infant carriers to strollers.

    For children up to age 2, WHO advises against restraining kids for more than one hour at a time if it can be avoided. And for kids 1 to 4, it's recommended that they get at least 180 minutes of physical activity per day, ideally in a variety of ways.

  • Needless to say, the report has caused quite a stir across social media, with all sorts of opinions.

    Many agreed with the report. 

    "Facts!" wrote one Twitter user. "Then they wonder why their child is depressed and suffer anxiety."

    "They should be interacting with their parents!!!" tweeted another.

    Others were all, "whatever -- clearly no one at the WHO is a parent."

    "This is just such unrealistic nonsense," tweeted one user. "Plus there is great programming for children."

    "I hope 'limited to none' means 3 hours," wrote another.

  • Plenty of others weren't getting all bent out of shape about the news, though -- or taking it too seriously.

    "It's not that I disagree, it's that I'm a realist," wrote one Twitter user. "I used to be a (damn good) nanny and now I'm a SAHM who adores her son, but cannot devote myself to him to the exclusion of all else. Here 'all else' means my home, my husband, my other relationships, and most of all, my sanity."

    "I’m also a nanny, and I think there is something to be said for moderation," added another. "I don’t think it does children any favors for us to be constantly engaging and entertaining them either. They need to know how to play by themselves along with a little TV mixed with time outside."

    For what it's worth, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has been advocating a similar approach to screen time for a while now, advising it be avoided for babies younger than 18 months unless video chatting.

    "Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning," AAP shares. "Too much screen time can also harm the amount and quality of sleep."

    Honestly, this sounds like some health advice all of could stand to live by, not just kids. Aside from our jobs that typically have us glued to screens for hours on end, unable to get up from our desks, we then go home and stare at our phones some more as we scroll through Instagram or pin pretty things on Pinterest. Taking these recommendations somewhat with a grain of salt may ease our minds, but they shouldn't be ignored -- especially as we move further and further toward lives that are plugged in 24/7.