“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 tablet on a long car trip or plane ride?
There’s good news for parents and caregivers who may feel overwhelmed trying to shield their young children from screens: These guidelines were revised by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in October 2016 to recognize the increasing presence of digital devices and provide a roadmap for responsibly introducing age-appropriate media to children.
Here’s what the AAP recommends when it comes to toddlers and screens:
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.
The bottom line? The new recommendations continue to prioritize screen-free time for all kids. But if you decide to allow your toddler to watch a TV show from time to time, how do you differentiate “high-quality programming” from all other programming? And why is “co-viewing” so important? Here’s 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 you 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.
There are 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 less 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 AAP 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 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.