The World Health Organization issued strict new guidelines Wednesday on one of the most anxiety-producing issues of 21st Century family life: How much should parents resort to videos and online games to entertain, educate or simply distract their young children?
The answer, according to WHO, is never for children in their first year of life and rarely in their second. Those aged 2 to 4, the international health agency said, should spend no more than an hour a day in front of a screen.

The WHO drew on emerging – but as yet unsettled – science about the risks screens pose to the development of young minds at a time when surveys show children are spending increasing amounts of time watching smartphones and other mobile devices. Ninety-five percent of families with children under the age of 8 have smartphones, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media, and 42 percent of children under 8 have access to their own tablet device.

Experts in child development say that the acquisition of language and social skills, typically by interacting with parents and others, are among the most important cognitive tasks of childhood.

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

But the guidelines, like those of other public health groups that have weighed such issues in recent years, also seek to provide clear rules for the messy realities of parenting, when a fussy baby may be soothed most easily by a video of a nursery rhyme, or a grandmother three states away may be able to engage with a toddler only over Skype.

This disjuncture means that strict rules sometimes generate more guilt than useful corrections in parenting decisions, said pediatricians and researchers who have studied the issue.

“It induces a real conflict,” said University of Michigan pediatrician Jenny Radesky, author of screen-time guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2016. “The more guidelines we give, it just seems like there’s going to be more of a mismatch between what experts say. . . and what it feels like to be a parent in the real world every day.”

Radesky also said that Silicon Valley, which over the past year has introduced a number of tools to help parents limit children’s screen time, could go farther by improving those tools and also designing services in ways less likely to encourage heavy use by children. Features that discourage breaks, such as YouTube’s default “auto-play” feature, are a frequent source of complaint among consumer advocates who say technology companies are encouraging compulsive behavior by children who lack adult self-control. (YouTube long has said that its service is not intended for those under 13, though surveys show it is popular among younger children.)

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