While some recent research condemns the category “screen-time” as too broad to be meaningful, the World Health Organisation begs to differ. Its new guidelines, released late last month, recommend strict screen-time limits for children under five - no matter what they’re viewing or how they’re viewing it in.
Where other experts have put the emphasis on what children watch on a screen - the content, for good or ill, of the games and videos they consume - the WHO guidelines are solely concerned with how much they consume.
In other words, quality isn’t really the issue. Quantity is.
No matter what kids are interacting with via a screen, there is a single common denominator: they’ll be sitting down to do it. Call it the bottom line of screen-time. And it’s that inaction - the sedentary nature of screen-time - that chiefly concerns WHO’s experts.
In that respect, the message is less about screens per se than it is about the importance of physical activity.
If our under-fives were sitting for hours at a stretch, immobilised by the wonder of books, presumably WHO would need to release reading-restriction guidelines. But that is not happening.
What is happening is kids swiping tablets and smartphones before they can crawl, and developing a habit of physical inactivity with serious repercussions for their health and wellbeing.
Sitting down: It's the bottom line of screen-time.
Failure to meet current physical activity recommendations is responsible for more than 5 million deaths globally each year across all age groups, according to WHO research.
Healthy habits for activity and sleep, established early in life, carry over into adolescence and beyond.
The new guidelines, developed by a WHO panel of experts, examined the effects on young children of sleep time, screen-time and time spent restrained in chairs and prams. The panel also looked at the interactions between these three variables and reviewed evidence around the benefits of increased activity levels.
WHO did not look at the impact of screen-time on the brain.
The big picture?
Critics of the approach have charged that the agency “missed the big picture.” “It’s not that the screen is potentially toxic, per se,” observes Michael Rich the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital. “It is that it is a relatively impoverished stimulus for them compared to face-to-face interaction.” he says.
Rich would also like to see WHO develop recommendations for alternatives to screen-time. Otherwise, he points out, “Setting a screen time limit probably generates more guilt than enlightenment.”
WHO Recommendations at a glance:
Infants (less than 1 year) should:
Children 1-2 years of age should:
Children 3-4 years of age should:
(source: The World Health Organisation, www.who.int)