Is screen time for toddlers okay, or will it lead to instant brain-rot? The screen-time debate has been going strong ever since the first black-and-white bunny-eared TV made its way into a suburban living room—and it’s only gotten crazier in our current era of tablets and smartphones.
Chances are, when you first got pregnant you swore on Walt Disney’s grave that your child wouldn’t so much as glance at a screen until they were old enough to drive. And for the first few months, you probably stuck to it. Then reality kicked in: relatives wanted to FaceTime, your seven-month-old pried your iPhone out of your hand and instantly beat you at Bejeweled, and that one time you caved in desperation and put on Sesame Street so you could poop in peace, you were magically able to not only squeeze a log out but also vacuum the entire house while your kid learned every animal that starts with the letter B.
For most parents, screen time is a part of life with toddlers… and is a huge source of guilt. You’ve no doubt heard about the studies linking excessive television viewing to childhood obesity, poor sleep habits, and language delays, and you’re probably torn between the desire to have a healthy kid and the need to just have thirty minutes to get dinner on the table without someone throwing Cheerios at your ankles.
The gloom-and-doom studies have spurned a whole screen-free parenting movement of parents who will flee the room with their tot in tow the minute you turn on Moana, but there’s a key word in all those studies that’s super important to note: “excessive.” While we can all agree that plunking your kid in front of Paw Patrol for twelve hours straight can’t be good for anyone, even the notoriously rigid American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) has acknowledged that screens are part of our reality—and that used sparingly and thoughtfully, they’re likely not as bad as we’ve been led to believe.
Fortunately for those of us who live in the real world, that mentality is starting to penetrate. Even the screen-free parenting gurus have acknowledged the positive effects of limited (versus zero) screen time, and The New York Times Parenting section recently ran a piece on TV shows to watch with your toddler.
Screen Time Recommendations for Your Child
So how should you handle screen time for toddlers? The AAP has a few recommendations (we’ve added our own take in parenthesis, because reality):
- For children under 18 months, the only screen time should be video chats with relatives. (Even The New York Times admits that this is basically impossible with an older sibling, so just do your best. Try to limit viewing time to when baby is napping, and maybe set up a playpen for baby in the kitchen so you can get dinner prepped while your older child enjoys a little TV time away from tiny, curious eyes.)
- Choose high-quality programming, and stay away from content that’s fast-paced, violent, or filled with distracting ads or pop-ups. Common Sense Media, a non-profit that helps parents make smart choices for their families, has great lists of TV shows and movies that are the media equivalent of health food.
- Watch TV with your child, and talk about what’s happening, just like you would while reading a book. (But sometimes you just need that half hour or so to get stuff done, in which case maybe just be familiar with the show so you can chat with your kids later about the characters.)
- Limit screen timed to one hour a day. (Unless you’re on an airplane. Then let them watch until their eyeballs bleed.)
- Make “media free zones” in your home, such as kids’ bedrooms and the dinner table. Set up charging stations away from these areas, or make a “phone box” for everyone to drop their devices into before meals. (The tricky part of this rule is you have to follow it too, which is tough for parents whose jobs expect them to be “always on.” Still, if you can set even a 15-minute window during dinner where you can connect face-to-face, it can make a big difference.)
- Try not to let kids interact with screens within an hour of bedtime, as the light they emit can interfere with sleep patterns. (But if you really need to sit your older kid in front of a show so you can, say, put the younger one to bed, try to choose a slow-paced, soothing show without loud music or fast cuts.)
- Make a media plan for your family. There’s even (somewhat ironically) a handy online app that lets you do it for free.
You can view the full list of AAP recommendations here.
Bottom line: despite the handwringing, a little screen time every day is just fine for your kid—and the right shows could even be beneficial for social and educational development. So next time that mom from playgroup who makes her own organic baby food gives you side-eye for letting your kid chillax in front of Sesame Street, feel free to clap back. After all, science is on your side.
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