Little Asian 18 months / 1 year old baby boy child leaning against pillows on bed watching a video from tablet pc. Kids playing with tablet computer, Gadget-addicted children, pseudo-autism concept Image Credit: Supplied

In a new set of guidelines, the World Health Organization said that infants under 1 year old should not be exposed to electronic screens and that children between the ages of 2 and 4 should not have more than one hour of "sedentary screen time" each day.

Limiting, and in some cases eliminating, screen time for children under the age of 5 will result in healthier adults, the organization, a United Nations health agency, announced Wednesday.

But taking away iPads and other electronic devices is only part of the solution, the researchers said. Children under 5 should also get more exercise and sleep in order to develop better habits that will stave off obesity and diseases in adolescence and adulthood, the guidelines said.

"Achieving health for all means doing what is best for health right from the beginning of people's lives," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, 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."

As previous generations worried about the effect of radios and televisions, researchers today are studying the effect of "screen time," which has become a shorthand for the amount of time spent interacting with TVs, computers, smartphones, digital tablets and video games, on brain development and overall health. But there is limited data on the short- and long-term effects.

The National Institutes of Health has funded a $300 million project known as the ABCD Study (for Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development), which hopes to show how brain development is affected by a range of experiences, including substance use, concussions and screen time. But the study is tracking children ages 9 to 10 into young adulthood, and the data is preliminary.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines that recommended children under 18 months avoided screen time other than video-chatting. And it recommended introducing only "high-quality programming" to children 18 to 24 months of age, and advised that parents and caregivers watch the program with them. Children between the ages of 2 to 5 years should watch only one hour per day of approved programming.

What we really need to do is bring back play for children, this is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep.

- Dr. Juana Willumsen

The World Health Organization's guidelines go further than those recommendations.

Dr. Fiona Bull, a program manager for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases at the WHO, led a team of experts who developed the guidelines.

"Improving physical activity, reducing sedentary time and ensuring quality sleep in young children will improve their physical, mental health and well-being and help prevent childhood obesity and associated diseases later in life," Bull said in a statement.

The researchers also recommended that children under 5 not be restrained in strollers, high chairs or strapped to a caregiver's back for more than one hour at a time. And children between the ages of 1 and 5 should get three hours of physical activity per day, and get at least 10 hours of sleep per night.

According to the WHO, the number of obese people worldwide has nearly tripled since 1974. Instances of childhood obesity, once considered a scourge of wealthy nations, are increasing dramatically in low- and middle-income countries, especially those in Africa and Asia.

The organization said that the failure to meet current physical activity recommendations is responsible for more than 5 million deaths globally each year across all age groups.

"What we really need to do is bring back play for children," said Dr. Juana Willumsen, who works on childhood obesity issues at the WHO, in a statement. "This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime, while protecting sleep."