“The gist of the WHO recommendations is that small children should be spending more time in active play and less time being sedentary—and that the sedentary time should be more focused on activities that boost cognitive development, like blocks and puzzles, and less focused on videos and electronic games,” says Vicky Rideout, an independent consultant who researches kids’ technology use and who worked on the Common Sense Media survey. “And by and large, I think those are sound recommendations.”
But Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and the author of Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, From Birth to Preschool, noted that the trade-off between idle screen time and enriching playtime isn’t so simple. Screen-time recommendations, she wrote to me in an email, “sometimes seem to assume that the alternative to TV is always high-quality engaged time with an adult. If that’s the case, then it may be right that screens are bad. But if the alternative is a grumpy, stressed-out adult who needs a break, the calculus may be different.”
Moreover, Oster told me that it’s hard to assess how sensible the WHO’s new guidelines are, based on the available scientific evidence. “To the extent we do have data, it focuses on TV exposure,” she said. “There, the evidence is reassuring that TV doesn’t seem to have the negative effects that are sometimes feared. But screens are ever more ubiquitous and if we are looking for evidence on the impact of iPad or phone screen exposure in small children, it is simply not available.” Because these data are relatively scant, some of the biggest questions about kids and screens are difficult to answer with certainty. Willumsen says that the WHO recommendations are “based on the best scientific evidence, integrating [children’s] different behaviors and considering the child’s whole day.”
Jessica McCrory Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University who studies parenting, brought up a broader concern about recommendations like those from the WHO and other organizations. “If parents are letting their kids watch TV, or keeping them cooped up inside, or keeping them strapped in a car seat for an hour or more, it’s not because they think it’s good for their kids,” she wrote to me in an email. “Parents make those decisions because they don’t have any other choice. Or, at least, because the alternatives require more money or more space or more energy or more patience than those parents have on any given day.” Some such out-of-reach alternatives include paid child care, extracurriculars, and having ready access to safe outdoor spaces or a library with high-quality children’s programming.
When I asked the WHO about how screen time for kids can serve parents’ needs, Willumsen said, “For children 2 years and older, the recommendation is that they spend no more than one hour per day passively entertained by screens—parents can get a break.”