Sedentary screen time, including watching TV, phones and tablets, should not happen before a child is two, the WHO recommends.
Between the ages of two and four, children should have just 60 minutes of screen time a day, but less is better.
The new guidelines focussed on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age and were developed by a WHO panel of experts.
They assessed the effects of inadequate sleep, and time spent sitting watching screens or restrained in chairs and prams.
The recommendations are aiming to help tackle child inactivity, which is a leading risk factor for global mortality and health conditions related to obesity.
As well as warning against passive screen time, it says babies should not spend longer than an hour at a time strapped into a buggy, car seat or sling.
“Improving physical activity, reducing sedentary time and ensuring quality sleep in young children will improve their physical, mental health and wellbeing, and help prevent childhood obesity and associated diseases later in life,” says Dr Fiona Bull, programme manager for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases, at WHO.
The WHO advice is based on available evidence, but there is still a lack of definitive research into the harms and possible benefits of screen use.
Earlier this year a study of 2,400 children, published in the JAMA Paediatrics, revealed that screen time is causing toddlers to lose coordinations skills like those needed to tie their shoelaces, new research suggests.
The research found that more screen time was linked to lower scores in “milestone” tests of coordination, as well as communication, problem-solving and social skills.
But it is not clear whether screen time is directly to blame. There’s a possibility that time spent on screens could go hand-in-hand with other factors linked to delayed development, such as upbringing and how a child spends their remaining time.
In Canada and the US, experts say children should not use screens before they are at least 18 months old. But the UK has no such guidelines.
But this latest study forms part of what is becoming quite conflicting opinions on the impact of screen time on children’s health and wellbeing.
Instead, new guidance from leading paediatricians suggests that parents should run through a checklist to monitor the impact screen time is having on their children.
But back in September new research has proven that more than two hours of recreational screen time a day could seriously affect a child’s learning.
What experts do seem to agree on is the importance of upping physical activity for children and babies.
“What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” says Dr Juana Willumsen, WHO focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity.
“This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep. “
The WHO guidelines will be presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow on Sunday.
A summary of the advice
Infants (less than 1 year) should:
- Be physically active several times a day in a variety of ways, which includes at least 30 minutes of tummy time.
- Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time eg in prams/strollers, high chairs, or strapped on a caregiver’s back.
- Screen time is not recommended.
- Have 14–17h (0–3 months of age) or 12–16h (4–11 months of age) of good quality sleep, including naps.
Children 1-2 years of age should:
- Spend at least 180 minutes in a variety of types of physical activities, more is better.
- Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time eg in prams/strollers, high chairs, or strapped on a caregiver’s back, or sit for extended periods of time.
- For 1-year-olds, sedentary screen time (such as watching TV or videos, playing computer games) is not recommended. For those aged 2 years, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better.
- Have 11-14 hours of good quality sleep, including naps, with regular sleep and wake-up times.
Children 3-4 years of age should:
- Spend at least 180 minutes in a variety of types of physical activities at any intensity, of which at least 60 minutes is moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity.
- Not be restrained for more than 1 hour at a time (e.g., prams/strollers) or sit for extended periods of time.
- Sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better.
- Have 10–13h of good quality sleep, which may include a nap, with regular sleep and wake-up times.