One of the most hotly-debated topics amongst parents and pediatricians is screen time, or how much time children should be allowed to spend in front of a TV, phone or tablet. Study after study has shown that toddlers, especially those under the age of two, learn best through play, hands-on exploration and one-on-one interactions with parents, caregivers and peers. These experiences engage both the body and mind by promoting experimentation, problem solving and creative thinking. Yet in a world dominated by TVs, smartphones and tablets, screens are everywhere and trying to completely withhold them is impossible — especially when parents and teachers use them routinely.
While exposing your toddler to a television will not turn their developing minds into mush, we do advise following a few simple recommendations to maximize the benefits these technological wonders offer.
Participate with your toddler
Learning from TVs and screen time can be greatly enhanced when parents participate with their toddlers and create a social, interactive experience. We encourage parents to ask questions about the content and provide detailed descriptions of what they are seeing, similar to how one might read a book or play with a toy. The more parents, rather than the television, can drive the story, the more impactful the experience will be for the toddler. Furthermore, try to connect what children are learning in the television program with real world applications. For example, if the TV show or screen time is teaching them about counting or letters, have them practice these skills in everyday play and routines.
Make screen time deliberate and age-appropriate
Research has shown that background television interferes with children’s play and development. Exposure to content that is not age-appropriate, in particular, is associated with negative effects on toddler’s language and cognitive function. Toddlers end up spending too much energy trying to understand what is going on and overtaxing their brain. Try to limit adult-related programming to when the kids are asleep.
Avoid screen time before bedtime
Studies have shown that children with televisions in their room have increased difficulty sleeping. Furthermore, screen time should be limited, if possible, in the hour or two before bedtime. That time should be used to help toddlers unwind, whereas television tends to excite them.
Set a time limit
The amount of screen time allowed is a very personal decision. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two should not be exposed at all, while children over the age of two should be allowed only one to two hours per day. The decision must be made in the context of the child’s other activities; for example, children who are very active otherwise are at less risk of being too sedentary if given a certain amount of screen time per day whereas less active children would benefit from more physical activity and less passive time in front of a screen.
Choose content carefully
Many TV shows are extremely fast-paced and may impair a child’s ability to think and make decisions, as described above. The content of the shows our children watch should reflect their experiences in the world and should provide a context to which your toddler can relate and understand. Furthermore, on phones and tablets, select apps that require interaction and participation that increase learning.
Technology will increasingly become an integral part of our daily lives and can have a huge impact on your toddler, both positive and negative, depending how it is incorporated. By selecting appropriate content that is interactive and participatory, parents can create a highly educational environment in which their toddlers can thrive.
Dr David Kagan is a pediatrician and internal medicine specialist at Healthier, a text message-based service that sends you timely information about your child’s health and development. Ask any question and the clinical team responds within 24 hours, completely free. Enroll now for free by texting 650-458-4744 with signup code PAMP or visit Healthier.