The World Health Organization has issued new guidelines on how much screen time young children should get: Less is better for children under 5, and infants — kids younger than a year old — shouldn't be exposed to electronic screens at all.
WHO, the United Nations' health care agency, recommends interactive floor-based play with babies several times a day. The agency also says infants should not be physically restrained — like in a high chair or stroller — for more than an hour at a time. During that time, it recommends caregivers read, sing or tell stories to keep infants engaged. The WHO also says infants should get plenty of sleep, anywhere from 12 to 17 hours a day, depending on their age.
For children between 2 and 4 years old, the agency says an hour of sedentary screen time a day is permissible, but less is better.
WHO has never issued guidelines on screen time for kids 5 and younger before. It says these recommendations don't address specific needs of children with disabilities or chronic disease, so parents should talk to their child's pediatrician for more personalized advice.
In general, the WHO says limiting screen time, encouraging physical activity and quality sleep for kids will help develop healthy habits that can stave off obesity and related diseases, and contribute to good mental health in the long run.
"It's not a judgment call, whether it's right or wrong for your child to have screen time," says Leigh Richardson, a licensed professional counselor and founder of the Brain Performance Center in Dallas. "It's more about, what is that screen time doing to your child's brain?"
Richardson agrees with the WHO recommendations on limiting screen time for kids and says parents should also pay attention to the type of content kids consume. She says an educational program can have a different effect on a child's brain than watching something loud and flashy, like the New Year's Eve countdown in Times Square. Richardson says the brain grows rapidly during those first five years.
"That's when we learn how to walk," she says. "We learn how to talk, we learn how to start learning and listening. Our five senses are really coming into full force in those first five years, and I think the focus needs to be on developing those senses, not sending confusing messages to the brain."
Richardson says there are alternatives that can help parents stick to the guidelines from the World Health Organization.
"I raised two kids," she says. "Distractions are very, very meaningful, but you know, flashcards work, or a book works, just as well as a screen does."