Reasonable screen time limits for a toddler

It’s the rare toddler – and, honestly, the rare adult – whose attention isn’t captured by screens now and then. TVs, computers, smartphones – these screens show up in many families lives every day, so keeping them from becoming constants in babies’ and toddlers’ lives can be tricky. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for just how much screen time little ones should – and shouldn’t – be engaging with each day:

  • Children younger than 18 months old: Children this young should not have screen time other than for video-chatting. Video-chatting is active interaction with other people, instead of passive consumption of media, and can help tots keep in touch with far-away relatives.
  • Children 18-24 months old: If digital media is introduced to little ones at this age, it should be limited, the programming that children do watch should be of high quality – educational programming, for example – and parents should watch along with toddlers and engage with and talk about the content to help toddlers better understand exactly what they are watching.
  • Children 2-5 years old: Children at this age should be getting no more than one hour of screen use in a day, and it should only be high-quality programming. Parents should still be watching along with little ones and engaging with the programming so that children can understand what they’re seeing, and can more actively interact with media.
  • Children 6 years and older: When children reach this age, parents want to make sure that there are still consistent time limits placed on screen time and that there are also limits on what sort of media children are engaging with, especially since kids of this age may be able to engage more on their own now. What’s very important at this stage is that media use and screen time does not eat into other important parts of a child’s day, including time for sleep, physical activity, and other essential activities.

Why to limit screen time

While Baby is still a toddler, they really should not be getting too much screen time. When toddlers consume media excessively, or without much thought, it can replace some of the other important parts of their day, like quality family time, face-to-face interactions, outdoor playtime, and quiet, imaginative downtime. It can also replace physical activity, fully engaged mealtime, and even sleep – also a no-no (Some of these might sound like familiar adult struggles too!).

Limiting screentime for Baby may mean making choices like putting your own smartphone away, limiting background TV, and not reaching for a screen to entertain Baby when they seem to need entertainment or a distraction too often. Less screen time means more time for all those other, more important parts of their day. On the other hand, prioritizing some of those other parts of the day – like making sure Baby gets in some good outdoor play or has a lot of unstructured playtime – will help lessen their reliance on screen time.

When you do have screen time together, how should you engage with media?

When Baby does get screen time, it should come in meaningful form. It might be a home video of them playing with friends that you watch on your phone and talk about, or a public television program that you and they can sing along to together, or it might a video chat with a grandparent. What you don’t want to do is use a screen as a babysitter.

When Baby engages with screens at this age, you should watch along with them, engage with the media, and talk about what you’re seeing. This might mean you sing or clap along to songs you hear, ask them how the characters you watch might be feeling, ask what they think will happen next, or explain how what they are seeing on the screen relates to their real life. This will all help Baby better understand exactly what they are watching.

Strategies for limiting screen time

One strategy that can help you limit screen time is to designate media-free times and media-free spaces. For example, you may decide that mealtime and driving is time that is spent together screen-free. Or while you might allow your toddler to watch an educational program with you while sitting in the living room, you might designate bedrooms as being screen-free spaces. You might even decide some nights of the week are totally media-free in your home. This can help set up clear expectations for your little one about just where and when it’s okay to be engaging with media. This is an age when Baby can start learning about rules and guidelines, even if they push back against them at first, and it can help lead to limited screen-time and increased quality time spent together screen-free.

Cultivate a healthy media relationship

It’s not just a matter of limiting screen time, it’s also increasingly important to teach and have conversations with Baby about exactly how to interact with screen media. This will become even more important as they continue to interact with screens as they get older, and can use them more and more independently. As they do so, you should also have ongoing conversations about online safety and online citizenship – what’s it’s okay to use screens for and what’s not okay, what sort of media and websites are okay to engage with and what are not okay, and how to treat others with respect both in real life and online.

Other resources

Certainly, you’ll need to decide what’s best for your family, and you can also speak to your child’s healthcare provider about appropriate limits on screen time and media as well as advice on how to incorporate it into your life in appropriate ways. And following the new screen recommendations the organization released in 2016, the The American Academy of Pediatrics released an interactive Family Media Plan tool that can help you become more aware of how and when you and your family are using media and help you thoughtfully consider just how you would like to include it (or not include it) in your family’s day-to-day routine. This means teaching Baby how to have a healthy relationship with such media, and leading by example as you incorporate it into your family life in a meaningful way that reflects your family’s values.

Read more:
  • AAP Council on Communications and Media. “Media and young minds.” Pediatrics. 138(5). October 2016. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Screen time and children – How to guide your child.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, November 18 2016. Retrieved August 16 2017.
  • “American Academy of Pediatrics announces new recommendations for children’s media use.” American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, October 21, 2016. Retrieved August 16, 2017.
  • “Family Media Plan.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved August 16, 2017.

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