WHO Says the Problem With Child Screen Time Isn't the Screens, It's Being Sedentary

The new World Health Organization guidelines for children under five recommend limiting screen time—only if it means kids are sedentary for more than an hour.
The YouTube Kids app logo sitting on a chair.

The World Health Organization released new health guidelines for children under five years old on Wednesday, which recommended that caregivers limit “sedentary screen time”—such as using watching videos on phones, tablets, TVs, or computers, or watching television—for children under five.

For infants under one years old, screen time is unilaterally not recommended, and for children between one and five years old, the WHO recommends limiting screen time to “no more than 1 hour; less is better.” By limiting sedentary screen time, the guidelines claims, kids can improve their motor, cognitive, and psychosocial development, while reducing their chances of obesity.


But to be clear, the WHO did not recommend limiting screen time on the basis of the screens. It recommended limiting screen time on the basis that it’s sedentary.

When reached for comment by Motherboard, WHO spokesperson Margaret Ann Harris said that the newest guidelines are “about SEDENTARY screen time…ie sitting/lying passively/ not interacting, not moving.” In other words, the guidelines aren’t about screens themselves, or the content kids get through screens.

The WHO claims that the problem with screen time is that it involves kids sitting or resting when they could be doing more active things—such as walking, running, or engaging in active play with parents. “Replacing restrained or sedentary screen time with more moderate- to vigorous intensity physical activity, while preserving sufficient sleep, can provide additional health benefits,” the report reads.

It might not always be feasible for parents to replace screen time with completely different, supervised forms of entertainment. For many parents, screen time is an opportunity to cook, clean, or work. But to be fair, the WHO doesn’t recommend limiting screen time entirely, or even limiting it to one hour total. Rather, for kids aged one to five, the WHO says that toddlers shouldn’t be in front of screens for more than an hour at a time.

The guidelines do make a distinction between screen-based sedentary time and non-screen-based sedentary time, or time spent “lying on a mat, sitting in a high-chair, pram or stroller with little movement, sitting reading a book or playing a sedate game.”

However, the WHO can’t confidently say that one is worse than the other. The guidelines claim that screen-based and non-screen-based sedentary time are associated with worse health outcomes—like impaired motor, cognitive, and psychosocial development, or increased chances of obesity. The WHO called for more research on the distinction between screen-based and non-screen-based sedentary time.

Some screen time can endanger kids’ wellbeing. YouTube Kids (YouTube’s child-focused app) and kids-focused areas of YouTube have a notorious problem with disturbing content that targets kids. These videos will attract children by using child-like images and tropes, but shift mid-video toward violent, sexual, or generally distressing content.

YouTube purged thousands of these videos in November 2017, but they persist on the platform. As reported by Motherboard, some kid-focused YouTube creators have shifted to other video and streaming platforms, citing a lack of guaranteed safety for kids on YouTube, and frustrations with the platform’s nebulous recommendation algorithm.

It’s worth noting that YouTube Kids allows parents to make user-profiles for children of any age. The minimum age to create a child profile is zero. The second-lowest age is one.