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Children need more play and less screen time

By Susan Gately - 26 April, 2019

Children under five must spend less time sitting watching screens or restrained in prams and seats, get better quality 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.

Improving physical activity, reducing sedentary time and ensuring quality sleep in young children will improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing, and help prevent childhood obesity and associated diseases later in life, says Dr Fiona Bull at the WHO.

The organisation said that failure to meet “current physical activity recommendations” was 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,” said the report. “If healthy physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep habits are established early in life, this helps shape habits through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.”

“What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” said Dr Juana Willumsen from the WHO. “This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep.”

The WHO guidelines recommended:

Infants (less than 1 year) should:

  • be physically active several times a day in a variety of ways with at least 30 minutes tummy time
  • not be restrained for more than one hour at a time in prams or high chairs
  • have no screen time
  • have 14–17 hours (0–3 months of age) or 12–16 hours (4–11 months of age) of good quality sleep, including naps.

Children 1–4 years of age:

  • spend three hours each day in a variety of types of physical activities
  • not be restrained for more than one hour at a time in prams or high chairs
  • Have no screen time for one year olds; one hour for those aged two to four
  • infants: 11–14 hours of good quality sleep, including naps, with regular sleep and wake-up times; toddlers aged 2 to 4: 10–13 hours of good quality sleep
  • encourage sedentary activities like looking at books, having stories read to them.

Owen Connolly from the Connolly Counselling Centre in Dublin told CatholicIreland.net that it was not good to allow young infants to watch TV or other screens. “You are exposing them to things that their brains are not able to cope with.” Research found that watching “sensible material” for about an hour was effectively good for slightly older children, but if they stayed watching longer, it stopped having a good effect.

“What has been experimented with is the re-introduction of games, puzzles, things that the whole family engage with,” said Mr Connolly. “Children gain more from the engagement with a couple of other kids and a parent, than they would from the TV. It’s not so much the intellectual development, but the emotional development.”

Any amount of playtime is a thousand times better than screen time, he said.

Mr Connolly also warned against children watching screens before going to bed. “You’re affecting a part of the brain that’s governed by melatonin – the sleep inducing chemical that your brain produces, and the blue light at the back of every computer mimics daylight and confuses the brain when it is trying to get to sleep.”

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