This week, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a new set of guidelines about physical activity, behavior, and sleep for children under the age of five. The document includes specific instructions regarding what it called “sedentary screen time.”
The recommendations state that children between the ages of two and five should experience no more than 60 minutes of screen time per day — and ideally, as little as possible. In addition, the guidelines say that children under the age of two should not be exposed to screens at all.
Developmental psychology researcher Jane C. Hu argues in Slate that the new WHO rules do not offer definitive proof that screen time is harmful to young children. What the guidelines really do is point to a general need for physical activity starting at a very early age, she says.
The first sentence of the executive summary states, “Physical inactivity has been identified as a leading risk factor for global mortality and a contributor to the rise in overweight and obesity.” Along these lines, the rules suggest that screen time represents an “opportunity cost” to kids, Hu says, depriving them of opportunities to engage in activities that are proven to benefit their health, such as active play or physical exercise.
She also argues that some activities involving screens can actually benefit children’s health. She cites education experts and psychologists who found that interactive games and videos effectively promote learning.
A recent study by professors at the Université de Montréal, however, points to numerous detrimental effects of screen time for young children. Researchers tracked the development of 1,859 children born in the late 1990s in Quebec and measured outcomes for those who grew up with a television in their bedroom during their preschool years. Such children, the researchers found, were more likely to be bullied, become depressed by their early teens, have less effective interpersonal skills, unhealthy diets, and weight problems.
These effects held true even after the authors of the study controlled for factors like mental health issues and parental education levels. The researchers, like Hu, identified screen time as a major detriment to more social and productive experiences. “Too much screen time may deprive children of other, richer activities that help to hone cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills,” they state.