Toddlers should not be spending more than 1 hour in front of a screen – they need to be sleeping and playing instead, WHO’s new guidelines say

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A new set of guidelines published by the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning parents against giving toddlers and children too much screen time.

To grow up healthy, toddlers and small children under the age of five should be taken out of their prams and seats for more active play, WHO said in its latest statement on Wednesday (April 24).

According to the guidelines, children aged one to four should only be given a maximum of one hour in front of the screen every day. And instead of watching cartoons or playing mobile games, small children should be getting good quality sleep and doing activities that help with their development.

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The new guidelines – on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under five – are based on studies of the effects of inadequate sleep, and time spent sitting watching screens or restrained in chairs and prams. Experts behind the guidelines also reviewed evidence around the benefits of increased activity levels, WHO said.

Apart from improving children’s wellbeing, Dr Fiona Bull, a programme manager for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases at WHO, said that improving physical activity, reducing sedentary time, and ensuring quality sleep can also help prevent childhood obesity and associated diseases later in life.

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WHO said in its statement that the failure to meet current physical activity recommendations is responsible for more than 5 million deaths globally each year across all age groups.

Statistics show that over 23 per cent of adults and 80 per cent of adolescents are not sufficiently physically active, WHO said. “If healthy physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep habits are established early in life, this helps shape habits through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood,” it added.

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How children spend their 24 hours a day is very important to their development, and replacing prolonged sedentary screen time with more active play and quality sleep is recommended.

At the same time, there also needs to be “quality sedentary time” which involves interactive non-screen-based activities such as reading, singing, and completing puzzles, WHO said.

Here’s what WHO’s guidelines say:

Infants (less than one year old)

Infants should be physically active several times a day in a variety of ways, particularly through interactive floor-based play, according to the guidelines.

Smaller babies who are not yet mobile should get at least 30 minutes of tummy time in their awake time, spread across the whole day.

Little babies should also not be restrained for more than one hour at a time, and that includes prams, high chairs, or in a baby carrier. Screen time for babies is not recommended at all.

The guidelines also encourage engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver when the baby is awake and sedentary.

Babies three months old and below should be sleeping 14 to 17 hours a day, while those from four to 11 months of age should get between 12 and 16 hours of sleep (including naps) a day.

One to two years old

Toddlers at this age should spend at least 180 minutes (spread throughout the day) in a variety of types of physical activities every day, the guidelines say. These activities can be at any intensity, including moderate-to-vigorous-intensity physical activity.

Again, these children should not be restrained for more than one hour at a time. They should also not sit for extended periods of time.

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For one-year-olds, sedentary screen time is not recommended at all. For those aged two years, sedentary screen time should be no more than one hour a day, and less is better, the guidelines say.

When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged.

In terms of sleep, small children in this age group should be getting a minimum of 11 to 14 hours of good quality sleep a day, with regular sleep and wake-up times.

Three to four years old

Kids in this age group should also be getting at least 180 minutes in a variety of types of physical activities at any intensity throughout the day. Of this 180 minutes, at least 60 minutes should be moderate- to vigorous intensity physical activity.

WHO guidelines also say that children at this age should not be restrained for more than one hour at a time, and they should not sit for extended periods of time.

Sedentary screen time should be no more than one hour, and less is always better. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is also encouraged.

To get enough sleep, children in this age range should get between 10 to 13 hours of good quality sleep a day. This includes a nap, and regular sleep and wake-up times.

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