Children under 5 should spend less time watching screens: WHO

  • The new guidelines for children under 5 years were developed by a WHO panel of experts
  • Failure to meet current physical activity recommendations is responsible for more than 5 million deaths globally each year across all age groups

Children under five must spend less time sitting, watching screens, or restrained in prams and seats, get better sleep and have more time for active play if they are to grow up healthy, according to new guidelines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday.

“Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people’s lives," said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Early childhood is a period of rapid development and a time when family lifestyle patterns can be adapted to boost health gains," he said.

The new guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behavior, and sleep pattern for children under 5 years of age were developed by a WHO panel of experts. They assessed the effects on young children with inadequate sleep, and time spent sitting watching screens or restrained in chairs and prams. They also reviewed evidence around the benefits of increased physical activity levels.

“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," said Fiona Bull, programme manager for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases, at WHO.

Failure to meet current physical activity recommendations is responsible for more than 5 million deaths globally each year across all age groups. Currently, over 23% of adults and 80% of adolescents are not sufficiently physically active, the apex health agency said.

If healthy physical and sedentary activity, and sleeping pattern are established early in life, it helps shape habits through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood, it said.

“What we really need to do is bring back play for children," said Juana Willumsen, with WHO’s focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity.

“This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep," said Willumsen.

WHO said that the pattern of overall 24-hour activity is key: replacing prolonged restrained or sedentary screen time with more active play, while making sure young children get enough good-quality sleep.

Quality sedentary time spent in interactive non-screen-based activities with a caregiver, such as reading, storytelling, singing and puzzles, is very important for child development.

“I completely agree with the new WHO guidelines for a child’s healthy growth. These guidelines have been created keeping in mind a holistic growth of the child. I believe a child below two-year-old should be kept away from mobile and television set. And, above two-year-old should be given access to them (both TV and mobile) just for two hours and not more than that," said Sanjay Sharma, Columbia Asia hospital.

The important interactions between physical activity, sedentary behaviour and adequate sleep time, and their impact on physical and mental health and wellbeing were recognized by the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, which called for clear guidance on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep in young children.

Applying the recommendations in these guidelines during the first five years of life will contribute to children’s motor and cognitive development and lifelong health, the health agency said.

“With the coming of the 21st century , we have seen the dawning of the electronic age , where children specially have been most affected, with more children becoming sedentary, less play time, more time spent on mobiles, TV, play stations, added to this older children spending more time on social media, tuitions, chatting , it’s almost as if their world has shrunk to just sitting, though social media has opened the universe to them, but their own health has taken a turn for the worse with poor nutrition, obesity, insulin resistance and learning disabilities, and later on heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and liver disease. If children less than 2 watch TV for more than 1 hour they increase their risk of these diseases," said Babita Jain, Director and HOD- paediatrics, Max hospital Gurgaon.

“Infants and children who watch less TV, mobiles, play more, have better cognitive development, short term memory, academic achievement and language skills… (It is) Important that no child should sit for more than 1 hour at a time, each child to run around and play, have physical activity for at least 180 mins a day , spread throughout the day. Another important aspect is adequate sleep for each child, from the infant to the adolescent. These little changes incorporated in the child’s daily life will not only decrease the morbidity but also the mortality, and make the children have better motor and cognitive development and lifelong improvement in health," she said.