When your toddler won’t stop watching TV

There’s just something about video, whether it’s coming from a TV, a phone, or a tablet, that grabs toddlers’ attention. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against exposing children to video before 2 years old, and suggests limiting it significantly after that, but it’s still very common for older babies and toddlers to start to get a taste for screen time early, one way or another. For some toddlers, screens are just one more interesting source of information about the world, but for others, once screens are an option, it can be hard to interest them in anything else, which can have a negative impact on social and language development, among other things.

Emerging research suggests that limited screen time may not be harmful as children grow a little older, especially when it’s closely supervised by parents, and more interactive than just passively watching a video. Video-chatting with relatives, playing interactive and educational games, and other activities that go along with the technology in our lives can be fun and interesting ways for toddlers to interact with the world, if they’re balanced out by other things as well.

Sometimes, though, toddlers start getting a little too attached to TV or other devices. If you’re starting to worry that your little one’s screen time is starting to get a bit out of hand, there are a few things you can try to help loosen their hold on their technology.

  • Keep tech in shared spaces: This can be tricky, especially since a lot of technology is portable, but try to keep computers, tablets, and other devices centered around use in the living room, den, or other shared spaces, instead of letting them be carried all around the house, or keeping them in your child’s bedroom. This both sets up the idea of limits on technology and helps you keep an eye on exactly how much technology time your child is actually getting.
  • Set up tech-free times and places: Limiting times and spaces where technology is used can help ensure that technology stays a tool you can use, not something that takes over. This can mean keeping computers and tablets in a specific room, so that if you leave the room, the device stays, or it can mean making the time after dinner and before bed a screen-free zone (which may be better for sleep patterns, as well) or it can mean more extensive limits, like screen time only on weekends, sick days, or vacations. More extensive bans can backfire in the way where, when children are allowed to watch videos or play games on devices, they may go overboard to compensate, but it’s still a more limited kind of access that ensures the chance for other interests and hobbies to have a chance.
  • Use passwords wisely: Password protection on, say, anything that involves a credit card purchase can help to prevent any unexpected charges from coming up on your bill, and if you’re sharing a password with your little one so they can log in, make sure you’re using a different one to lock them out of your email, bank account, or other areas you don’t want them logging into.
  • Embrace the timer: If you’re thinking of adding time limits to your toddler’s technology use, consider picking up a timer, like an oven-timer or an egg timer. Often, children and toddlers respond better to limits when they’re enforced by something external, like a timer, rather than something coming from their parents.
  • Lean in to transitions: One of the big complaints parents have when their toddlers’ and children’s screen time is starting to go too far is that their children or toddlers get upset and angry when it’s time for the TV, tablet, or phone to be put away. Setting up the amount of time that’s allowed with a device at the beginning, and then offering a warning near the end of screen time can help children prepare for the transition, which can help soothe some of the negative feelings.
  • Set the example you want them to follow: Baby is still learning habits from you every day, so if they see you on your devices regularly, it only makes sense that they might want to do the same. More than that, they won't understand why you’re limiting their access and not your own. On the other hand, if you spend a significant amount of your down time doing other things, there’s a good chance they will follow.
  • Offer alternatives: Watching shows and playing games on devices are only a few of the activities toddlers can enjoy. Making sure your little one is offered lots of options for reading, drawing, active play, and other things to do may not make them want to give up watching TV or playing games entirely, but it will help to make sure they have a balanced list of activities that build different skills and abilities. More than that, play with them yourself, early and often. There’s nothing a toddler loves more than some one-on-one time with their mom or dad – even screen time doesn’t stand a chance.
  • Get involved: Several studies suggest that children can get more out of media if it’s watched interactively, and if it’s watched with someone, especially a parent, who can help lead the interaction. Active watching, listening, and learning has a lot more value for children than watching passively, and with you by their side, you can help your child get more out of videos and games. More than that, playing together with a video or game can transition more easily to playing together without a video or game than just switching activities abruptly. If your toddler loves a show, they may love acting out what happens next. Talking through what happened on a show is also a great way to teach critical thinking skills and help boost vocabulary.
Screen time is a part of many children’s lives, but it’s the kind of activity that can start to take over in certain situations. Like anything else, screen time is best in moderation, so even if you feel like it’s not creeping into anywhere it shouldn’t in your home, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on it.

  • Anya Kamenetz. “Kids and Screen Time: A Peek at Upcoming Guidance.” NPR. NPR, January 6 2016. Web.
  • Marguerite Kelly. “How to stop a child from watching too much TV.” The Washington Post. WP Company LLC, October 17 2013. Web.
  • Lori Takeuchi, Reed Stevens. “The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning Through Joint Media Engagement.” The Joan Ganz Cooney Center. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center, December 8 2011. Web.
  • “Kids & Tech: Tips for Parents in the Digital Age.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, October 21 2016. Web.
  • “Parents of Young Children: Put Down Your Smartphone.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, May 24 2016. Web.
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