Amid rising concern among child health care professionals, the World Health Organization has issued new guidelines on children’s use of electronic screen devices. As reported in The New York Times of April 26, the respected international health group now cautions parents that children under the age of one year should not be exposed to electronic screens and children between 2 and 4 years should be limited to no more than one hour of “sedentary screen time” a day. The term “screen time” includes smartphones, TV, computers, digital tablets, and video games.
In addition, noting that the number of people in the world who are obese has about tripled since 1974, the WHO strongly recommended that children under five get more exercise and sleep to develop better habits that will prevent obesity and other diseases in adolescence and adulthood. It is the failure of so many people to meet basic standards of physical activity that is responsible for some five million deaths worldwide each year among all groups, the organization said. “Early childhood is a period of rapid development,” declared Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, “a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains.”
The WHO guidelines are just the latest in a series of warnings over the past few years by people who study children. Three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued similar warnings about electronic devices. And in October 2017 National Public Radio called attention to a survey from the non-profit Common Sense Media expressing concern over the “skyrocketing” increase of children using mobile devices.
“Forty-two percent of young children now have their very own tablet device – up from 7 percent four years ago and less than 1 percent in 2011,” the survey found, with 49 percent of these children under 8 “often or sometimes” using them in the hour before bedtime – which child specialists note is bad for sleeping habits.
Dr. Juana Willumsen, a specialist in childhood obesity issues at WHO, proclaimed that “what we really need to do is bring back play for children.” While protecting sleep, she said, “This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime.”