“No screen time until your child is 2.”

Sound familiar? As a parent or nanny, you’ve heard it repeated by pediatricians and parenting experts countless times. While families do their best to follow this strict guideline, it can be an impossible task in a world saturated with screens—especially if your young child has older siblings or grandparents who rely on FaceTime and Skype to stay in touch. And what toddler parent hasn’t reached for a phone or tablet on a long car trip or plane ride?

The World Health Organization released screen time guidelines for children in 2019 for the first time in the organization’s history. According to the guidelines, children under the age of 5 should have no more than an hour of “sedentary screen time” each day, and less is better. Setting these limitations can ultimately result in healthier adults by “improving physical activity, reducing sedentary time and ensuring quality sleep”.

What is Screen Time?

Put simply, it’s any amount of time spent looking at a screen—whether that’s a tv, tablet, or smart phone.

What WHO Recommends For Toddlers and Screens

For infants (less than 1 year-1 year), screen time is not recommended. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged. For children 2-4 years of age, sedentary screen time should be no more than 1 hour; less is better. When sedentary, engaging in reading and storytelling with a caregiver is encouraged.

The bottom line? The new recommendations continue to prioritize screen-free time for all kids. However, If you do decide to allow your toddler to watch a TV show from time to time, you can follow the suggestions from the AAP. But how do you differentiate “high-quality programming” from all other programming? And why is “co-viewing” so important?

Here are a few tips to help you decode the recommendations:

Young Children Should Only Consume High-Quality Media

If your 2-year-old is going to watch television or play with an app, the content must be age-appropriate and educational. There are literally thousands of apps and television programs geared toward young children, which can make it hard to know what is worthwhile and what’s not, so do your research before determining what to allow your child to watch or use. When in doubt, choose PBS programs geared toward toddlers and young children — Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street are two good examples — that reinforce important social lessons for kids.

Risks Associated with Excessive Screen Time

Strict limits in a world where screen time is inescapable may not be realistic, but parents need to understand the perils of too much TV (or video games, apps, etc.). Research shows that kids who spend too much time engaging with digital devices and media are at an increased risk for aggressive behavior, weight problems, and sleep disturbances. In addition, more screen time equals fewer opportunities to participate in physical activity and developmental play.

Let Common Sense Rule

Toddlers don’t need more than one hour of TV time a day nor do they need digital devices readily available to them, so set clear boundaries and make screen time special (those long plane or car rides are a good opportunity for screen time).

Co-Viewing is Critical

The current WHO guidelines emphasize the importance of parents and caregivers consuming media with young children. Translation: The TV doesn’t do double duty as a sitter. Parents need to be present to help kids understand what they are watching and reinforce lessons from educational programming.

Provide “Digital Guidance” Starting Now

The new recommendations make clear: Parents and caregivers are responsible for setting boundaries and providing guidance around media. And there’s no reason to wait—it’s best to begin setting limits and expectations now. The best way to “guide” your young child when it comes to media consumption? Lead by example. Surveys have found that some adults spend more than two hours a day on their devices—texting, checking Instagram and Facebook, watching cat videos, responding to emails. But if you want your child to have a healthy relationship with screens and media, you first must limit how much time you spend on these devices. Consider creating no-screen zones in your house; put the phone and other devices away during meals and at bedtime; and prioritize screen-free quality time with your toddler.

While the guidelines from WHO recommend little to no screen time for children under 5 years old, some research has shown the benefits of limited screen time—from teaching empathy to fostering creativity and improving word learning. The important thing is to remember the risks of screen time and set strict limitations so your child grows into a healthy, happy (and well-rested) adult.

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