How much screen time is actually OK for kids? The WHO just weighed in
There’s been a ton of debate and research about how screen time affects kids, and how much of it is appropriate for them to have at different ages. Different studies came to different conclusions, but they pretty much all had one thing in common: They found that significant time in front of a screen can hurt a kid’s development. Now, the World Health Organization is getting involved. and their recommendations, including no screen time at all for kids under a certain age, are pretty strict.
The organization just released the new guidelines about how much screen time kids should actually be allowed to have at different ages, and it might mean some serious battles between parents and kids over tablets and smartphones.
According to WHO, children under a year old should get no screen time. That’s right — none. Kids that young are in a state of extremely rapid development, and screens can be so disruptive to that, they need to be removed from the equation altogether, WHO said. They also suggest very rare screen time for the second year of a child’s life.
For kids ages two to four, up to an hour a day is probably OK, but no more than that. Whether the screens in question are for entertainment, education or simply to distract kids while their parents are busy or taking a break, the reason doesn’t matter. Screens get in the way of kids’ development, and they need to be extremely limited for the youngest kiddos.
HO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this is largely because kids that young need to put a lot of time and work into developing their language and social skills, and screens directly interfere with the activities they need to do to grow those skills: interacting with people. “Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people’s lives,” a WHO statement reads. “Early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains.”
WHO is the public health agency of the United Nations, so these recommendations have real clout. But they also echo past recommendations that have come from experts who have studied the effects of screen time on kids of all ages.
Like in a study out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, which found that kids who use screens before bedtime get less sleep and poorer quality sleep, which in turn has a negative effect on their ability to learn and grow as quickly as they should.
Another study, presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, found a link between speech delays in kids under two and the amount of time those kids spent in front of screens. Those researchers concluded that screen time played a role in the kids’ delayed speech skills.
Yet another study, this time from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, found that in kids ages 2-5, spending a lot of time consuming media on screens delayed overall development in several areas, including speech, social, emotional and fine motor skills.
Ultimately, it’s up to parents how much time their kids will spend in front of screens, and we simply can’t deny that sometimes the easiest option is to hand off a phone or tablet with a kid-appropriate video queued up. But the science is getting pretty clear that too much screens can hurt kids, and while no one is looking forward to fighting with toddlers over iPads, it may be for the best.