Screen time for toddlers and babies– how much is too much?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), screen time usage in children increases from 53 minutes for babies at age 12 months to more than 150 minutes for toddlers at 3 years old. Screen time (TV, computer, smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc…) for toddlers and babies can be very confusing. Is it good? Bad? How much screen time is too much? 

Parents often feel guilty for letting their young children watch TV or play video games. For some parents, it is the only way for them to get a break during a long day of activity. But what parent doesn’t have a kid who becomes a zombie once they are in front of the TV too long, or one that becomes a complete maniac when they have to end their screen time? Is screen time for kids a good or bad thing? What is the correct thing to do when these kiddos ask for screen time? 

The answer isn’t simple. There are lots of actions patents can take to make screen time in babies, toddlers, and older kids a positive experience. It is important for parents to set screen time limits and create rules around screen time that best fit their family. 

In general, the less screen time the better! Children under 2 years of age really shouldn’t be having any screen time. Toddlers over the age of 2 should be limited to no more than 1 hour of screen time a day! 

Screen time guidelines and recommendations

Here are the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for screen time: 

  • “For children younger than 18 months, avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting. 
  • Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming, and watch it with their children to help them understand what they’re seeing.
  • For children ages 2 to 5 years, limit screen use to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with children to help them understand what they are seeing and apply it to the world around them.
  • For children ages 6 and older, place consistent limits on the time spent using media, and the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. 
  • Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.”

One comment about the AAP’s screen time recommendations for babies and toddlers under 18 months. This age group needs stimulation from YOU, the parent. Not from a screen! It may seem like they are learning something, but turns out they really are not. They need to see your face, your facial expressions, and all the great, diverse words you are saying to really learn well.

Can screen time increase learning in babies and toddlers?

Some say that screen time, when done properly, can increase learning in children this age. In a world filled with screens, we would expect that screen time usage will increase for our children compared to years ago when technology wasn’t as advanced. Now, there are screens everywhere, and of course the kids want in on the fun too! Children will need to be able to use screens to function in today’s society. It is inevitable that they will be exposed to screens. The question is, how can we make screen time beneficial? 

Screen time in kids and toddlers, ages 2-5 years old

There is a place for screen time in kids who are 2-5 years of age. It is important to choose screen time wisely, and utilize their time online by picking educational programs. Toddlers can learn from online apps and educational shows. But it is important that the parent then introduce this information learned in the real world. The parent needs to connect what the child learns online with the real world. Otherwise the child doesn’t understand what they see, and screen time becomes just distraction time with no additional educational value. So after Johnny watches Elmo sing ABC’s… make sure to sing them together, and point out some real “A”pples! Connect with your toddler to be sure that they can see what they watched on the screen, in the real world. 

If screen time usage for your toddler must be lengthy, then it is important to utilize high quality content for the child. Shows like Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street are great choices to optimize screen time. Letting your child navigate YouTube or 10 shows of Caillou is probably not the best idea. Choose wisely. Not all ABC programs are good. Check out the programs you are letting your child watch. You may be surprised at what you see. Don’t let your child navigate YouTube or the app store! Guide their choices. Help make screen time for your kids high quality. 

Make screen time meaningful

The American Academy of Pediatrics has some great tips for screen time use. One favorite tip of ours is engagement with your child during screen time use. Use screen time as a chance to play a game, sing, dance or snuggle up and watch a show together. Get those dancing shoes ready. Bounce around the room with your child. BE there with your child. We get it, one (or two) episodes of Sesame Street isn’t horrible, but use some of the time your child is on a screen as time you can interact together. Your kiddos love you and want you to play with them. Join in the fun! Kids love to dance. And they love to dance even more with their parents! Ask your child questions about what they are seeing, hearing and feeling. These types of interactions will help make time with the screens more meaningful. “Cookie monster loves cookies, do you?” “Caillou is so whiny, isn’t he?”

That being said, according to The Journal of Pediatrics (the official publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics), responsive parent-child interactions are what makes children successful and able to complete tasks, have impulse control, regulate emotions, be creative and flexible. This is developed through unstructured social play, and not digital screen time. So it’s not the screen time that actually increases success, but the interactions they have with YOU, the parent! Make sure that your screen time doesn’t take the place of unstructured play time! Get outside, get on the floor, break out those blocks and have some fun!

When is screen time bad for toddlers?

The Journal of Pediatrics reports that overall, TV time has decreased in ages 2-5 yr olds, but is this because of the push to limit screen time? Or is it because those little buggers are taking over mom’s ipad and stealing dad’s cell phone to watch shows on YouTube? The answer seems obvious. The decrease of actual TV time has been replaced by portable screens. Screen time in general can vary, but a screen is a screen! 

Kids of all ages are impacted. What 8 year old isn’t asking for a phone? How many toddlers do you see at dinner with a tablet? In general, screen time is bad when it isn’t educational, exceeds pediatricians’ recommendations of daily usage, or replaces the opportunity for children to have healthy interactions with their parents. Moms and Dads, I urge you, make your children interact with you at dinner. Don’t bring the tablet. Make some parts of your life “screen free.” Interact with your child by looking at them and talking with them. Don’t let screens replace human interaction, sports, physical activity and the ability to communicate with others. 

Screen time in school aged children and teens

What about older kids? Screen time usage in older children and adolescents has risen, mostly because of the increase in cell phone usage. Once they have a cell phone, they have constant screens at their fingertips. Means of communication change and screen time becomes essential to communication. Make sure to teach your teen about the safety of the internet. Review their screen usage and set limits. Be sure that you teach your teen about respect, privacy and safety. Mental health illnesses are on the rise, partly due to social media use and cyberbullying. It is very important that you have a discussion and plan with your teen about social media usage given the significant risks associated with its use in this age group. 

Screens are here to stay. Make your child’s screen time usage meaningful, set limits, interact with your child during screen time and be sure to monitor what your child is looking at! Now, excuse me while I shut off Mickey Mouse!

– Kim Liner, RN, MSN, CPNP

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