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

Much has been said about the new recommendations of the World Health Organization that caregivers restrict the amount of time that young children watch the screens. But the guidelines are less about the risks of time versus the screen itself, and more about the advantages of spending time doing almost anything else.

The recommendations are, in general terms, about physical activity and sleep for children under five, and are an attempt to create healthy habits during a window of critical development. Among the recommendations for tummy time and active play, the WHO also explains that between the ages of two and five years, children should not spend more than an hour a day sitting in front of a screen. And children under the age of two should not participate in sedentary screen time, says the WHO.

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

Screen time can mean many things: it can mean being absorbed by endless YouTube videos, watching TV, playing video games, traveling through social networks, or FaceTiming with grandparents. There is a lot of debate about what all these digital media are doing to the brains of people, especially children. And the truth is that science has not reached concern in places like Silicon Valley, where a father said The New York Times that "the devil lives on our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children." . "

In this case, however, WHO is not basing its recommendations on what screen time can do to the brain. "We do not specifically look for evidence about the effects of the screens, in terms of the light emitted, for example, or the content on the screen that a child is watching and cognitive development," says Willumsen. "We were specifically looking at sedentary behavior." So sit or lie down and watch TV counts against the limit recommended by the WHO; dancing together with television does not do it. Watch YouTube on a tablet account; reading together with a parent in an e-reader does not. The FaceTiming family is also fine, says Williams.

Those distinctions are key to eliminating, as researchers continue to investigate the effects of time in front of the screen, says Marc Potenza, professor of psychiatry at Yale. "I would say that not all forms of screen time are the same with respect to their possible beneficial aspects and possible harmful aspects," he says. That does not mean that WHO should have abstained from issuing recommendations, he says, only that people should be prepared for this guide 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, director of the Children's Media and Health Center at Boston Children's Hospital, which focuses on WHO issues. The screen time recommendations overlook the big picture: "It's not that the screen is potentially toxic, in and of itself, it's a relatively impoverished stimulus for them compared to face-to-face interaction," he says. Screen time, in this context, essentially becomes a marker of how people interact with children, and the important part is to give children a wide range of experiences, he says. He would like to see recommendations for easy alternatives, such as listening to music. Otherwise, he says: "Setting a time limit on the screen probably generates more guilt than lighting."

With this kind of time limits on the screen, the burden falls on parents and caregivers to follow them. And Jenny Radesky, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan, hopes that in the future, WHO will also make recommendations to improve the digital environment of children. "These may include less use before bedtime or at night, healthier content that is truly educational, not just marketed as such, and reducing the persuasive characteristics that young minds can not resist," he says. "This would put less responsibility on parents to always be the guardians of the behaviors of children in the media."