I have a guilty secret. I let my 2 year old daughter watch Sesame Street. And Elmo. And The Muppets. And an occasional Disney movie. I also let her play with my iPhone, often enough that she will say “I want my apps!” She has a whole screen of these. And she has more books and TV shoes downloaded onto my Kindle Fire than I do.
Even worse, I’ve been letting her watch Baby Einstein since she was about 11 months old. That’s about when I started letting her play with my iPhone, too. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against any screen time for kids under the age of 2. I understand their recommendation. Studies don’t show any benefit even to educational programming, and there are some links between the amount of TV time and developmental delays. And of course as a parent I don’t want my child to suffer any delays. That’s what makes me feel so guilty.
On the other hand, when I let her use my screen technology she is entertained, cheerful and sits still. For example, I started letting her use my iPhone on an airplane trip. We travel frequently as a family. The last trip before I gave her my iPhone she spent a 3 hour trip jumping up and down on my lap and trying to touch the hair of the people in front of us. And then screaming when I restrained her from bothering other passengers. By the end of the trip I was sore and exhausted and close to having a tantrum myself. The next trip when I let her use the iPhone? She sat quietly and watched Baby Einstein video clips and Fisher Price apps for 2 hours straight. We both finished the trip feeling calm and cheerful.
What it boils down to is that I let her use screen technology because it works. When we are out to dinner playing with my phone means she is not running all over the restaurant. When we are travelling the screen technology makes the difference between a screaming miserable child (and mother) and a cheerful entertained child and a calm happy mother. When I have to take her with me to a doctor’s appointment or to a meeting or to any other child inappropriate venue (which is often) giving her a screen to play with means that I can get my task accomplished. At home, when my husband and I are trying to fix dinner or fold laundry or just have a conversation letting her watch TV means she will not get into trouble while we are trying to run the household.
I acknowledge that there are other possible solutions. I have been told to just let her play in the house. And we often do that, but she still requires supervision. My daughter is very agile and very bright for her age. She is also an excellent climber and views our childproofing more as an obstacle to be overcome than a significant barrier. We could childproof more, but we would end up having to take everything we don’t want her to touch above a 4 foot height. It starts to become impractical. We are trying to teach her not to touch things but that takes time and, as you might have guessed, supervision.
Another possible solution would be hiring a babysitter for her when I have errands or want to go out to eat. However, as a working mom, I don’t really want to hire a babysitter all the time. I enjoy chatting and singing with my daughter during our car rides and in between tasks that require my attention. Usually when we are out to dinner it is with family and we all want her with us. We just want her to stay seated at the table and not have a tantrum.
When I talk to my friends with toddlers, most of them are doing the same things I am. We are all well educated, sophisticated parents and we are all letting our kids watch TV and play with our devices. Frankly, I think that means the American Academy of Pediatric’s recommendations are unrealistic. Here are my proposed, experience based, practical suggestions for toddler screen time.
1. Limit passive entertainment (all TV shows, games, books that read themselves to your child) screen time to less than 1 hour a day under 2 years old, less than 2 hours a day for 2-5 year olds and no more than 3 hours a day for anyone, including adults. Time on the computer for work or homework doesn’t count.
2. Parents should pre-view anything their children are allowed to see. This means reading the books, watching the shows and playing the games before your toddler. Make sure what you see is something you want your child to see. Think of it this way – when you watch TV, you are essentially inviting these characters into your living room. Do you want them there?
3. Whenever possible, make screen time interactive. Read books from a kindle to your child. Discuss what they see on TV. Even a 2 year old can talk about what they saw on TV. Sing the songs together.
4. Limit the setting for certain devices. For example, in our household playing with the kindle or Mommy’s phone is only allowed when we are out of the house.
5. Bring crayons, paper, and some toys in addition to your screen devices. If your child is like mine, they won’t hold her for long. But giving her these things first helps us limit the amount of time she spends with a screen.
6. Schedule daily time for both active play outside and for creative play inside. Spend some of this time playing with your child, engaged in their activities. Take the chance to see the world through their eyes. It’s amazing to experience everything as new again.
7. Read! I suggest reading at least 2-3 short books a day to your small children. Continue reading as they get older. Reading to your children is demonstrated to improve their reading skills and language ability. It also gives you a lovely time to sit and hold your child close.
8. Keep TV’s and computers out of bedrooms. This goes for adults too. Media time for children needs to be monitored, which means keeping it in the family areas of the home. TV use in the bedroom is also shown to disrupt sleep.
9. Parents need to lead by example. If your toddler sees you zoning out in front of the TV or obsessively playing games on your phone, your toddler will want to do these things too.