How much TV should a toddler watch?

Every screen can be a TV screen if it just tries hard enough. Just like their parents before them may have been, your toddler is probably drawn to the light, color, and movement that pours out of screens as big as a laptop or as small as a phone, and any one of them can switch on TV shows or cartoons full of images specifically designed to keep children interested. Screen time generally, and TV shows specifically, can be tempting to new parents as a way to keep their rugrats quietly occupied, but warnings against the effects of too much TV on young brains stretch back to long before Baby was born. So how much TV should toddlers be watching?

The dangers

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no regular TV watching for children under the age of 2, and limiting TV time to around 1 to 2 hours a day for children over 2. One of the biggest reasons for this recommendation is that studies show that children under 2 generally don’t have the understanding to actually learn anything from educational videos. They don’t have the ability to make the connection between anything on-screen and what it’s supposed to represent in the real world. Even once they start making those connections, young children still learn better from live people than they do from digital images, no matter how educational those digital images are. 

Education isn’t everything, though, and Baby is still a few years away from kindergarten, anyway, so how much learning does they really need to do? One of the AAP’s main concerns is that screen time takes away time children could be spending being around and interacting with their parents, since small children learn from human interactions, and don’t learn as effectively from screens. 

The concern is that that these children will fall behind developmentally because they won’t be getting as much direct human interaction. This worry seems like something of an all-or-nothing argument, though. Can’t children get a little screen time, and, at the same time, plenty of time to hang out with their parents or caregivers, and learn about the world that way? Can a little screen time be part of a balanced mental diet?

Some studies, including one by nonprofit Zero to Three, say yes. Recent research suggests that when screen time is treated interactively, with parents talking about what’s happening on the screen to their children, screen time is perfectly okay. In fact, for slightly older children who actively engage with the material, it can even be somewhat educational and helpful, depending on the program.

Another concern about screen time is an association with sleep problems, which is why the National Sleep Foundation recommends not having TVs, computers, or other devices in the bedroom, and avoiding using them in the time leading up to bedtime.

The bottom line

It’s definitely a good idea to avoid having the TV on in the background around children, and limiting the time when the TV (or TV in phone or tablet’s clothing) is on is probably wise for a few years, too. Still, most of the dangers the AAP warns against in terms of screen use will be taken care of by using moderation, interacting with the content, and making sure they get plenty of time to talk and interact with you – to put it another way, plenty of face-time without using FaceTime.

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  • Lauren Lowry. “Infants and Toddlers ‘Unplugged’: New Recommendations about Media Use from the American Academy of Pediatrics.” The Hanen Center. The Hanen Center, 2011. Web.
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