It goes without saying that toddlers require a lot of attention. It’s constant. And demanding. Whether you’re a working parent or not, turning on the television can be a much-needed respite, even if it’s only for the length of an episode of Paw Patrol. (Approximate running time is 23 minutes—but who’s counting?)
All that raises the question: When it comes to toddlers and television, what is the impact on their development? And let’s just say you play a couple of Paw Patrol episodes back to back—or let them watch the entirety of Moana in one sitting, oops—is that a major parenting no-no? We chatted with the experts to find out.
When It Comes to Television and Toddlers, Common Sense Is Key
“The high-level takeaway in terms of kids and screen time is that everything should be watched in moderation,” says Lindsay Powers, author of You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids: A Judgment-Free Guide to Stress-Free Parenting and founder of the viral No Shame Parenting movement. “You should also make sure the programming is age-appropriate, and you should do your best to interact with your kids while they’re viewing it.”
But what does all that mean? Powers defines moderation as adapting to the situation as best you can. For example, if you’re cueing up the iPad for a plane flight or when your child is sick, that’s fine—just balance it out with less screen time when you’re no longer traveling or after they recover. As for choosing programming that’s age-appropriate? Powers is succinct: “You shouldn’t let your 3-year-old watch Game of Thrones.” Makes sense.
The American Academy of Pediatrics Has Its Own Guidelines
Still, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time (with the exception of video chatting via apps like FaceTime or Google Duo) until your child is at least 18 months. Then, between 18 to 24 months, the priority should be on minimal introduction of high-quality programming watched together. (Think Sesame Street or Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.) After that, from ages 2 to 5,the AAP suggests one hour of content a day. When kids are 6 and older, parents can establish healthy screen-time guidelines with their child.
“It’s important to try to limit screen time from the start,” says Jay Berger, M.D., the chair of pediatrics at ProHealth. “Still, as parents we know that when our children are cranky or bored, the quick fix is to hand them a phone. However, investing five to ten minutes to get your children engaged in activities like coloring, a puzzle or reading a book together sets a pattern. From there, the seeds you plant will blossom.”
As for the impact on development? The AAP outlines that problems start when television watching “displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning. Too much screen time can also harm the amount and quality of sleep.” In other words, if the TV is doubling as a babysitter for your toddler and you’re not actively deciding what and how much they watch, it could create problems down the road. Dr. Berger adds: “Screens are not all evil and can provide some productive education and entertainment. But you want to teach your children that there are myriad activities at their fingertips that don’t require a battery.”
How Real Moms Can Strike a Balance
So what’s the right balance for parents who desperately need some down time and peace of mind when it comes to their toddler’s television habits?
“I interviewed the pediatrician who wrote the American Academy of Pediatrics’ screen-time guidelines,” Powers says. “She told me it is ‘bananas’ for a parent to keep their kids away from screens. Her kids watch YouTube, in fact!”
Powers also shares this great—and practical—tip: When you are out and about together, connect what they’re seeing and learning about to what your child previously saw on TV. “It’s as easy as, ‘Notice the trolley here in real life in our own town? That’s just like Daniel Tiger’s!’”
It’s also smart to put a priority on apps and screens that are super interactive (which can be found in abundance these days) versuschoosing programming that has kids just staring blankly at a TV. For example, Sesame Street spends the entirety of each episode flinging question after question at viewers. (“What was the best part of your day?” Elmo might ask.) That back-and-forth encourages interactivity and counts for a lot with younger kids.
There’s also an upside to introducing your kids to technology on the early side. “In a world where refrigerators are ‘smart’ and we order the essentials like toilet paper via our Amazon app, I think it’s unrealistic to expect our kids to never interact with screens,” Powers says. “Keep in mind that you’re giving your children technology literacy from a young age by letting them use apps or tablets or watch TV.” (No, that doesn’t mean you need to run out and buy an expensive tablet tonight, she adds.)
As for limiting the amount of TV consumed, start by setting parameters. (Say, no screens at dinner—a rule that applies to kids and parents alike.) And, per Powers, don’t be afraid to suddenly introduce new rules. It can be as simple as, “Now that it’s spring, we can only watch two TV shows a day: one before school and one after school,” or whatever limit feels good for you. The key is to hold your ground so that screen-time limits become the new normal. (You got this.)
It also never hurts to ask your own pediatrician to weigh in. As we all know, every child is different, and some might require more limits than others. If your instincts tell you that your kid is going overboard with screens, don’t ignore that feeling. But, simultaneously, you shouldn’t make a change just because someone in your inner circle guilted you into it.
Bottom line: If you have to cue up back-to-back episodes of Paw Patrol while you cook dinner or relax at the end of a long day, so be it. “Sometimes I give my kids a phone at a busy restaurant when they’re acting up so that my husband and I can have an actual adult conversation,” Powers says. “Research also shows that a strong relationship has many benefits. There are also major benefits to stress reduction, which you can achieve by taking a parenting break and letting your kid play with your phone by 20 minutes.”
Moderation is key. When it comes to toddlers and television, figure out your comfort zone and go from there.