Babies and toddlers should not spend any time looking at screens, World Health Organization warns parents

Babies and toddlers should spend NO time looking at screens and under-fives be limited to one hour a day, World Health Organization tells parents

  • Global health chiefs said too much screen time could lead to obese children
  • The recommendations suggest doing puzzles, colouring or singing instead
  • Past research showed more than half of UK children use the internet every week
  • Some 45 per cent of children use YouTube and 19 per cent have their own tablet 

Children should not spend any time looking at phones, tablets or TVs until they are at least two years old, the World Health Organization warned today.

New guidelines on how much activity children should do have been revealed by the world’s highest health authority.

Screen time may lead to children being obese, having slower brain and physical development, and worse mental health, the WHO report suggested.

Instead, it recommended children spend time reading or being read to, doing puzzles, drawing or singing in order to improve their brain development.

The advice will be unwelcome to many British parents – more than half of three to four-year-olds use the internet every week and one in five have their own tablet.

Experts in the UK have not readily accepted the WHO’s warnings, being sceptical about the dangers of screen-time and criticising the quality of scientific evidence.

Almost one in five three to four-year-olds (19 per cent) in the UK have a tablet, according to research by communications regulator Ofcom (stock image)

Almost one in five three to four-year-olds (19 per cent) in the UK have a tablet, according to research by communications regulator Ofcom (stock image)

The WHO has published its Guidelines on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep for Children Under Five Years of Age.

It says babies and one-year-olds should not spend any time at all looking at electronic screens.

Two, three and four-year-olds should be limited to just one hour per day and ‘less is better’, the report said.

‘The benefits of less screen-based sedentary behaviour (TV viewing, watching videos, playing computer games) include reduced [obesity], improved motor and cognitive development and psychosocial health,’ the report said.

Experts at the WHO issued the new advice as scientific evidence continues to build of the potential harms of children using screens too often.

Research published earlier this year found pre-school children in the UK spend, on average, an hour and 16 minutes online every day.

Almost one in five (19 per cent) of toddlers have their own tablet, and more than half (52 per cent) go online every week for an average of nine hours.

A study by communications regulator Ofcom

A study by communications regulator Ofcom

Under-fives spend two hours per day watching TV on average, while 45 per cent of them use YouTube and nearly a third use video streaming services like Netflix.

However, the WHO’s advice, to be presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow, has been met with criticism from British experts.

There are concerns the evidence the recommendations are based on is of too low quality – something the WHO itself acknowledged.

And critics say proof of the harms of screen-time are not established enough to warrant firm guidelines.

‘The restricted screen time limits suggested by the WHO do not seem proportionate to the potential harm,’ said Dr Max Davie, a senior officer at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

‘Our research has shown that currently there is not strong enough evidence to support the setting of screen time limits.

HOW COULD TOO MUCH TIME STARING AT SCREENS AFFECT CHILDREN?

Research has shown spending too much time looking at screens – smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions, for example – can be damaging to children’s intelligence, sleep, mental health and vision.

A 2018 study by the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa found eight to 11-year-olds performed five per cent worse on brain power tests than their peers if they spent two hours per day looking at screens.

This, they suggested, may be because looking at screens isn’t as stimulating as reading, and could interfere with vital sleep.

Disturbed sleep was also the focus of a warning from the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health earlier this year, when it recommended children don’t use screens before bed.

The RCPCH said high levels of screen time are linked to a less healthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle and poorer mental health.

Dr Max Davie, a health officer said: ‘Parents need to get control of their own screen time if they are going to get control of the family’s screen time. It’s much easier to be authoritative if you practise what you preach.’

Dr Langis Michaud, a professor of optometry at the University of Montreal, wrote in The Conversation in February: ‘A rapid increase in visual problems has been noted since the introduction of the smartphone in 2007.

‘While the device itself does not emit harmful radiation, it requires the user to read its screen at a distance of 20 cm rather than the normal distance of 45cm to 50cm.

‘It has been suggested that this close distance boosts the risk of developing myopia by eight times, especially if both parents are myopic.’

‘Also, it is difficult to see how a household with mixed-age children can shield a baby from any screen exposure at all, as is recommended.

‘Overall, these WHO guidelines serve as useful benchmarks to help steer families towards active and healthy lifestyles, but without the right support in place, striving for the perfect could become the enemy of the good.’

Research published last week by the University of Alberta in Canada suggested two or more hours of screen-time per day could lead to behavioural problems.

Children were significantly more likely to be badly behaved or develop ADHD by the time they were five if they spent hours staring at screens, the scientists found.

Those researchers, who published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE, suggested toddlers should use screens for half an hour or less each day.

A 2018 study by the CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa found eight to 11-year-olds performed five per cent worse on brain power tests than their peers if they spent two hours per day looking at screens.

Commenting on today’s WHO advice, Dr Tim Smith, a brain development expert from Birkbeck, University of London, said parents are given confusing information.

‘In recent months UK parents and early-years practitioners have been bombarded with conflicting recommendations and guidelines about how and whether they should be managing their children’s screen time and sedentary behaviour, e.g. from the RCPCH and Chief Medical Officers.

‘The release of new WHO guidelines does not help to clarify the situation.

‘While the report makes a potentially helpful step in distinguishing “sedentary screen time” from active screen based games, where physical activity is required, this remains an oversimplification of the many ways young children and their families engage with screen media.’

Dr Rachael Bedford, a researcher from King’s College London added: ‘Unfortunately, empirical evidence of the causal impacts of different uses of screen media on developmental outcomes of very young children is currently lacking.

‘Where there is consensus, is in the urgent need for such high-quality evidence to guide policy, particularly in the first few years of life where neural development is at its peak and potential impact of screen use, both positive and negative, may be at its greatest.’

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Elias Hakizimana

Elias Hakizimana, CEO&Founder of The Inspirer Ltd,(www.rwandainspirer.com) is a professional Rwandan Journalist with Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Communication, received from University of Rwanda’s College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) in 2014. He served various media houses in Rwanda including Rwanda Broadcasting Agency (RBA) in 2013 and became passionate with English Online and Print Media Publications where he exercised his talent as a Freelance News Reporter for The New Times, The Independent, The Rwanda Focus, Panorama and more before he became a Self-Entrepreneur as the CEO and Founder of The Inspirer Limited in early 2017.

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