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How Is Much Screen Time OK for a Toddler?

With screens virtually everywhere, controlling a child’s screen time can be challenging. To complicate matters, some screen time can be educational for children and support their social development. Check out My Baby Nursery for all your baby product needs.

So how do you manage your child’s screen time? Here’s a primer on guiding your child’s use of screens and media.

Screen Time and Screen Use

Screen time and screen use are standard parts of life for most children and teenagers. The time your child spends watching TV and using computers, gaming consoles, tablets and smartphones can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

It’s all about making sure of two things:

  • Children enjoy plenty of healthy, fun activities, both with and without screens, including physical activity, reading, creative play and social time with family and friends.
  • When children do use screens, they watch or use quality content.

And don’t forget to sleep! A healthy, balanced lifestyle for children includes enough good-quality sleep.

The Problems With Screens

Unstructured playtime is more valuable for a young child’s developing brain than is electronic media. Children younger than age 2 are more likely to learn and remember information from a live presentation than from a video.

By age 2, children can benefit from some types of screen time, such as programming with music, movement and stories. 

By watching together, you can help your child understand what they are seeing and apply it in real life. However, passive screen time shouldn’t replace reading, playing or problem-solving.

As your child grows, keep in mind that too much or insufficient quality screen time has been linked to:

  • Obesity
  • Irregular sleep schedules and shorter duration of sleep
  • Behavioural problems
  • Loss of social skills
  • Violence
  • Less time for play

How Is Much Screen Time OK for My Kid(s)?

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Kids are spending more time with screen media–and at younger ages–than ever before. 

To help families curb kids’ use, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have released numerical guidelines to limit screen time. Still, the reality is there’s no magic number that’s “just right.” What’s more important is the quality of kids’ media, how it fits into your family’s lifestyle, and how your kids engage with it.

The idea of screen time as a one-dimensional activity is changing. 

Even the AAP, whose screen-time rules had been strictly age-based, recognises that not all screen time is created equal. 

Computers, tablets, and smartphones are multipurpose devices that can be used for lots of purposes. On the other hand, which is sticking with specific amounts of screen time on the theory that sedentary activities, such as playing computer games, contribute to the global obesity epidemic. 

However, simply calling all devices using “screen time” can miss some important distinctions. Studies identify four main categories of screen time:

  • Passive consumption: watching videos or shows, reading, and listening to music
  • Interactive consumption: playing games and browsing the Internet
  • Communication: video-chatting and using social media
  • ​Content creation: making digital art or music

How to Choose Media That’s Good for Young Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics is known to guilty parents everywhere for advising against any screen time for children under 18 months, and very cautious usage after that, with no more than an hour of “high-quality programming” for kids aged 2-5. 

But in this day and age, when the media is everywhere, the pediatrician’s group now recognises that it’s time to go beyond “turn it off.

It’s essential, they note, for parents to recognise that not all screen time is created equal. 

Some TV shows, games and apps are more developmentally appropriate for preschool children than others. 

And just as important as the choice of media itself is the role you play in how your child consumes it.

Toddler Screen Time Should Be Interactive

Experts say that parents looking for educational value in programming and apps should prefer some sort of interactive element. 

When it comes to young children, for something to be truly interactive, the child must be “able to understand the rules and directions fairly easily, depending on the child’s developmental level.”

Toddlers tend to do better with slower-paced programming. 

They need more time, more practice and more learning opportunities, so things that are fast and quick or brief don’t match their style of engagement. Or their type of cognition.

There should also be multiple inputs of stimulation—they’re looking, they’re listening, and then they’re swiping. Or they’re taking a picture of something real, and they’re doing something with it.

Parents Are the Interactive Element

But perhaps the most basic form of interactivity happens with parents as they participate in toddler screen time

Simple screen time with the child watching the show or playing with the app is far less valuable than when it also involves direct interaction with the parents.

The new buzz term is joint media engagement, which means you’re going to interact with your child around screens just like you would interact with your child around any media, whether it’s a book or art material.

Parents needn’t feel guilty about every moment of screen time. 

If you need to take a shower and the kid will watch TV for 20 minutes, totally fine. No evidence’s going to win in any way harm their development. 

But if you want that to be an educational experience, understand that you need to be with the child, watching the screen with them and asking those kinds of more profound scaffolding questions and engaging in that media experience with the child.

And of course, screens can be used for young children to interact with real people. 

One of the great uses of iPods or iPhones is communicating with friends and relatives who do not live nearby. This is an excellent use of technology.

Apps Should Be Open-Ended

An open-ended, responsive, choose your adventure-style app is more likely to have educational benefits than one that is linear, experts agree. 

The play should be child-led rather than app-led.

The classic saying that any toy that your child is playing with should be 10 per cent toy, 90 per cent child. 

As with toys, that’s something we would suggest in an app. Things that are more open-ended allow a child to create and be creative and interact with the app.

Parents may check out a rating system for TV shows, movies and apps. Looking for the best tables and chairs for a baby playroom? Look no further. My Baby Nursery has you covered.

Independent reviewers evaluate whether they are age-appropriate if there are any caveats in terms of content, and how educational they are. It demystifies things a little bit and gives parents a clearer picture of what’s going on. 

Detailed reviews on the site discuss the learning activities an app offers, the quality, the pacing, and the difficulty level. They even offer topics for a family discussion about the programming.

Entertainment for Entertainment’s Sake

So much pressure has been put on parents to find educational apps and TV shows for their kids that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it can also be simply a form of entertainment.

It’s beautiful if the media is entertainment. We need to understand and manage expectations around which circumstances are which. 

Indeed, media that entertainment is fine for kids as long as the amount of time is moderate and the content is appropriate. 

Just like many adults like to watch TV to unwind at the end of the day, it can be a fun treat for kids too, and that’s OK.

The social stories in children’s programming can be fascinating to kids and reinforce by parents in conversation. 

Daniel Tiger might be a good example of that, with messages about sharing, about working together, that is great.

There are a lot of differences between these activities. But as valuable as many of them can be, it’s still essential for kids’ overall healthy development to balance their lives with enriching experiences off screens. These tips can help:

  • Pay attention to how your kids act during and after watching TV, playing video games, or hanging out online. There’s no need to worry if they’re using high-quality and age-appropriate media if their behaviour is positive and if their screen time is balanced with plenty of healthy screen-free activities.
  • If you’re concerned about heavy media use, consider creating a schedule that works for your family. This can include weekly screen-time limits, restrictions on the kinds of screens kids can use, and guidelines on the types of activities they can do or programs they can watch. Make sure to get your kids’ input. Hence, the plan teaches media literacy and self-regulation, and use this as an opportunity to discover what they like watching, introduce new shows and apps for them to try, or schedule a family movie night.

The AAP’s guidelines, released in October 2016, allow some screen time for children younger than two and emphasise parental involvement for all kids. In a nutshell:

  • Avoid using screen media for anything other than video-chatting for children younger than 18 months.
  • Find high-quality programming for children 18 to 24 months (if you choose to introduce media), and watch or play together.
  • Limit screen use to one hour per day of high-quality programs for children age 2 to 5 years.
  • Create a family media plan with consistent rules, and enforce them for older kids.

The reality is that most families will go through periods of heavy and light media use, but so long as there’s a balance, kids should be just fine.

What Makes the New Screen Time Guidelines Different

Past guidelines offered clear recommendations about the number of time children should be allowed to access screens. The newest policies provide a more flexible approach.

Parents are encouraged to allow screen time in moderation, but there isn’t a strict recommendation about the number of hours kids should use digital devices. 

Here’s what the AAP has to say about screen time:

  • Media has both pros and cons. Just like everything else, technology has pros and cons. Kids can learn a lot from educational content, but they can also be exposed to inappropriate images, unhealthy advertisements, and violent content. Take steps to make your child’s media use a positive experience.
  • Healthy role modelling is essential. Your child will likely mimic your media use, so it’s necessary to be a good role model. Read books, engage in physical activity, and spend time outdoors. Set healthy limits on your own electronics use.
  • Kids need rules about technology. Establish rules about the sites your child visits, the games he plays, and the movies he watches. Please don’t allow your child to gain access to social media until he’s mature enough to handle the responsibility.
  • Engage with your child’s technology. Get involved in your child’s digital world. Learn how to play the games your child enjoys and explore the Internet together. Look for positive activities you can do together with electronics.

Set Aside Time Without Technology. 

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Turn off your electronics during certain times of the day or on specific days of the week. Kids need to have time to engage in activities that don’t involve their digital devices. Even a short digital detox could improve your child’s behaviour and emotional well-being.

Establish Reasonable Limits on Screen Time. 

Most kids can’t handle unlimited access to their electronics. To keep your child physically and mentally healthy, set limits on screen time. Don’t let your child sit in front of the TV all day every Saturday, and don’t allow him to stay up all night playing video games.

Turn Media Mistakes Into Teachable Moments. 

Monitor your child’s activity and be prepared for your child to make mistakes sometimes. Whether he logs onto an inappropriate website or goes over the data limit on his smartphone, turn those mistakes into teachable moments so your child can do better next time.

It’s OK for Teens to Be Online. 

Social media is a significant part of most teen’s lives. Let your teenager spend time online communicating with other people. Online communication will likely play an even more substantial role in your teen’s future career. 

How to Implement Screen Time Guidelines for Your Child

According to the new guidelines, you don’t necessarily need to set strict limits on your children’s time using their digital devices. But, you should examine the big picture and the role electronics play in everyone’s lives.

Consider the habits your family has fallen into. Do you watch TV while you eat dinner? Do you stare at your phones when you’re in a restaurant or at a sporting event?

Examine your children’s media habits too. Do they watch TV before they go to bed? Are they using their devices whenever you’re in the car?

You may want to establish some new rules for the whole family, such as “No electronics while we’re eating dinner” or “No electronics on Saturdays.” Those types of controls can help ensure everyone is establishing a healthier relationship with their electronic devices.

Special Considerations

For children younger than 18 months, use of screen media other than video-chatting should be discouraged. Meanwhile, parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming or apps and use them together with children because this is how toddlers learn best. Letting children use media alone should be avoided.

For children older than two years, media limits are very appropriate. Limit screen use to no more than 1 hour or less per day of high-quality programming. Co-view or co-play with your children, and find other activities to do together that are healthy for the body and mind, such as reading, playing together, or going outside.

Checklist for a Healthy Approach to Screen Time

These questions can help you check whether your child is using screens in a balanced and healthy way.

Is your child:

  • sleeping enough?
  • Physically healthy?
  • Engaged with school?
  • Connecting socially with family and friends, online and offline?
  • Enjoying a variety of hobbies and interests?
  • Doing physical activity every day?
  • Having fun and learning while using screens?
  • Using quality content?

If you answer yes to most or all of these questions, your child is probably using screens in a balanced way as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Developing Screen Time Rules

If you introduce digital media to children ages 18 to 24 months, make sure it’s high quality and avoid solo media use. For children ages 2 to 5, limit screen time to one hour a day of high-quality programming.

As your child grows, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work as well. You’ll need to decide how much media to let your child use each day and what’s appropriate.

Consider applying the same rules to your child’s real and virtual environments. In both, play with your child, teach kindness, be involved, and know your child’s friends and what your child does with them. Also, keep in mind that the quality of the media your child is exposed to is more important than the type of technology or amount of time spent.

To ensure quality screen time:

  • Preview programs, games and apps before allowing your child to view or play with them. Organisations such as Common Sense Media can help you determine what’s appropriate. Better yet, watch, play or use them with your child.
  • Seek out interactive options that engage your child rather than those that require pushing and swiping or staring at the screen.
  • Use parental controls to block or filter internet content.
  • Make sure your child is close by during screen time so that you can supervise his or her activities.
  • Ask your child regularly what programs, games and apps he or she has played with during the day.
  • When watching programming with your child, please discuss what you’re watching and educate him or her about advertising and commercials.

Also, avoid fast-paced programming, which young children have a hard time understanding, apps with a lot of distracting content, and violent media. Eliminate advertising on apps since young children have trouble telling the difference between ads and factual information.

Encouraging Digital Literacy

At some point, your child will be exposed to content that you haven’t approved and devices without internet filters. Talk to your child about the situations that could occur and the behaviour you expect.

Please encourage your child to think critically about what they see on their screens. Ask your child to consider whether everything on the Internet is accurate. 

Does your child know how to tell if a website is trustworthy? 

Help your child understand that humans make media with points of view. Explain that many types of technology collect data to send users ads or to make money.

Setting Limits for Older Children

Set reasonable limits for your child’s screen time, significantly if your child’s use of screens hinders involvement in other activities. 

Consider these tips:

  • Prioritise unplugged, unstructured playtime.
  • Create tech-free zones or times, such as during mealtime or one night a week.
  • Discourage the use of media entertainment during homework.
  • Set and enforce daily or weekly screen time limits and curfews, such as no exposure to devices or screens one hour before bedtime.
  • Consider using apps that control the length of time a child can use a machine.
  • Require your children to charge their devices outside of their bedrooms at night.
  • Keep screens out of your child’s bedroom.
  • Limit your own screen time.
  • Eliminate background TV.

Teaching Appropriate Behavior

Online relationships and social media have become a significant part of adolescent life. 

Experts suggest that it’s OK for your teen to be a part of these worlds — as long as he or she understands appropriate behaviour. 

Explain what’s allowed and what’s not, such as sexting, cyberbullying and sharing personal information online. 

Teach your child not to send or share anything online that he or she would not want the entire world to see for eternity. 

No matter how smart or mature you feel, your child monitors his or her online and social media behaviour. Your child is bound to make mistakes using the media. Talk to your child and help him or she learn from them.

Also, set an example. Consider that your child is watching you for cues on when it’s OK to use screens and how to use them.

Managing your child’s use of screens and media will be an ongoing challenge. But by developing household rules — and revisiting them as your child grows — you can help ensure a safe experience.

Don’t Be Afraid of Quiet Time.

There’s a lot of pressure on parents to fill every minute of their child’s day with engaging, educational activities, and apps and TV seem like an easy way to fill that quota. But we don’t think kids need to be busy all day long.

Quiet time is essential. We have a wide range of playpens for your baby right here at My Baby Nursery.

A child can sit with a book, and there’s something to be said for learning to turn the page, deciding if the book is right-side up or upside down, they’re making their stimulation as opposed to the phone being on and stimulating. 

There’s developmental value in kids having to figure out their entertainment once in a while, rather than having it all fed to them. 

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