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The WHO’s new screen time limits aren’t really about screens

Much has been made of the World Health Organization’s new recommendations that caregivers restrict the amount of time young kids stare at screens. But the guidelines are less about the risks of screen time itself, and more about the advantages of spending time doing pretty much anything else.

The recommendations are broadly about physical activity and sleep for children under five years old, and are an attempt to create healthy habits during a critical developmental window. Among the recommendations for tummy time and active play, the WHO also spells out that between the ages of two and five, children should spend no more than an hour a day plopped in front of a screen. And children under the age of two shouldn’t engage in sedentary screen time at all, the WHO says.

So there’s more to these new guidelines than just screen time. “But I think there has been a lot of interest in the sedentary screen time recommendations in particular,” says Juana Willumsen, a WHO advisor on childhood obesity and physical activity. “It’s something that parents, families, and people in general are concerned about.”

Screen time can mean a lot of things: it can mean getting sucked into an endless stream of YouTube videos, watching TV, playing video games, scrolling through social media, or FaceTiming with grandparents. There’s a lot of debate about what all this digital media is doing to people’s — especially children’s — brains. And the truth is that science hasn’t caught up to the worry raging in places like Silicon Valley, where one parent told The New York Times that “the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”

In this case, however, the WHO isn’t basing its recommendations on what screen time can do to the brain. “We didn’t specifically look for evidence about the effects of screens, in terms of the light emitted, for example, or the content that’s on the screen a child is watching, and cognitive development,” Willumsen says. “We were specifically looking at sedentary behavior.” So sitting or lying down and watching TV counts against the WHO’s recommended limit; dancing along with the TV doesn’t. Staring at YouTube on a tablet counts; reading along with a parent on an e-reader doesn’t. FaceTiming family is fine, too, Willumsen says.

Those distinctions are key to iron out as researchers continue investigating the effects of screen time, says Marc Potenza, a professor of psychiatry at Yale. “I would argue that not all forms of screen time are the same with respect to their potential beneficial aspects and potential detrimental aspects,” he says. That doesn’t mean the WHO should have held off on issuing recommendations, he says, just that people should be prepared for this guidance to change as we learn more. “There are children growing up now, and parents have questions about how they should raise their children in this environment.”

For Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, focusing on the WHO’s screen time recommendations misses the big picture: “It’s not that the screen is potentially toxic, per se, it is that it is a relatively impoverished stimulus for them compared to face-to-face interaction,” he says. Screen time, in this context, essentially becomes a marker for how people interact with children — and the important part is giving kids a diverse range of experiences, he says. He’d like to see recommendations for easy alternatives — like listening to music. Otherwise, he says, “Setting a screen time limit probably generates more guilt than enlightenment.”

With these kinds of screen time limits the burden falls on parents and caregivers to follow them. And Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, hopes that in the future, the WHO also makes recommendations to improve children’s digital environment. “These might include less usage before bed or in the overnight hours, healthier content that’s truly educational not just marketed as such, and reducing persuasive features that young minds can’t resist,” she says. “This would put less of the onus on parents to always be the gatekeepers for children’s media behaviors.”


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