World Health Officials Crack Down on Kids' Screen Time

CC BY 2.0. verkeorg

Busy parents aren't going to like the new guidelines.

In their first two years of life, children should spend no time on screens at all. This is the new recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO), which issued screen time guidelines this week in an effort to help parents raise healthier children.

The guidelines state that, between ages 2 and 4, children should spend no more than one hour per day in front of a screen, and at no point should a child sit or be restrained in a stroller, high chair, or strapped on a parent's back for more than one hour at a time. When sedentary, reading and storytelling are encouraged.

Research into the effects of screen time on young brains is relatively new and limited, but that which has been done paints a bleak picture. A study in January found that screen time can delay development of toddlers' language and social skills, and another study published in April found that children interact more with parents while reading physical books, as opposed to digital stories.

I keep coming back to a comment made by Dr. Jean Twenge, author of iGen, a fascinating book that examines technology's effects on children. In an interview with CBC, she said it's not so much the technology itself that worries her as it is everything kids are missing. All that time spent staring at screens is time not spent running around, exploring and observing the world, communicating with others, learning to read facial expressions.

Screens, in all their addictiveness, deprive children of the joy of discovering the world; but parents allow them because screens make their own job easier. They're like an 'off' switch for kids, instantly slowing and silencing them so that parents can get other tasks done. The problem is that this comes at a cost to physical activity, quality and quantity of sleep, and psychological development, which hardly seems worth it.

Parents, however, seem unwilling to accept that the screens need to go. They insist that there's a way to find balance. The Washington Post cites Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute:

"What we don’t want is to set up a situation where parents feel shamed by the fact that they do use tablets and so on when they’re cooking, or something like that. It’s about trying to find a balance."

But is it, really? What's there to balance with a practice that is viewed by experts as harmful? Parents would be shamed for exposing their children to other harmful influences, such as cigarettes and alcohol, but somehow they're off the hook when it comes to screens, simply because of how accepted they are in society. Ninety-five percent of families with children under age 8 have smartphones, and 42 percent of children under 8 have access to their own tablets, so they really are everywhere.

It is clear what needs to be done – but most parents don't want to do it and physicians don't want to suggest it because it makes parenting harder and more chaotic. The long-term result of ditching screens, though, is a child more capable of self-regulation and creative play, less addicted to the allure of flashing lights, catchy music, and animations, and more interested in the world around them. I know because I'm doing it with my own children.

There are other ways to provide entertainment, particularly around the tough dinnertime hours. Instead of handing over a tablet, take your kid to the library each week to stock up on new books. Get toys that encourage creative building. Let your kid pull up a stool to help with dinner prep or sit them on the counter to watch. Send them outside to play in the yard. Buy a plasma car and accept the inevitable noise as they rip around the house.

Then – and this is key – once dinner's been served, your nerves are frayed, and the kid is worn out, you'll be able to put them to bed earlier, thus meeting another one of the WHO's guidelines, which is to ensure that young children get adequate sleep.

Parents, it's time to wake up and take this seriously. In the words of Josh Golin, of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, "It's extraordinarily important that someone with the authority and reach of the WHO is saying this. [Screen time is] not essential to learning, and it’s not effective at teaching." Let's stop pretending otherwise.