Should Parents Let Their Toddlers Have Screen Time?

As a mom to identical twin boys, my parenting style could best be described as “whatever the heck I have to do to survive.” My kids are seriously awesome, but they’re also curious and mischievous and believe they can do everything themselves. And there are two of them. As a result, I spent a lot of their toddlerhood (which we have just emerged from) trying to keep them from wrecking the house. One of the best ways to do that was by plopping them in front of the TV…a lot. Starting from the time they were two years old, I’d flip on a show while I made them breakfast and then I’d allow for another show while I drank my coffee. In the afternoons, they’d have a snack while they were—you guessed it—watching a show. And then I would put on another one because it’s only fair that they each get to pick an episode.

And that’s how it still goes to this day. To be honest with you, I think toddler screen time is the only thing helping me get through being a work-from-home mom of twin boys. While they watch a show, I play games on my phone or I read a book. It even allows me to do work I didn’t get to finish while they were at school. It’s a lifeline!


So, yes, we are a TV-watching family, and I feel no shame in that. What I will say, though, is that we don’t have iPads—not yet, and hopefully not for a long time. We found that full-on battles would break out whenever we gave them my husband’s to share, and it was a royal pain trying to tear the electronics away from them. So for now, no tablets.

Considering our own heavy TV use, I don’t really have judgments about parents’ use of TV or devices to calm and engage their kids. Still, I was curious what experts have to say about toddlers and screen time. Surprisingly, they’re a lot more accepting than I thought. “Tech is here to stay and children see it all around them, so it makes sense to incorporate it ‘reasonably’ into life,” says Tovah Klein, PhD, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “Screen time, whether it’s iPads or TV, is entertainment and it’s fun, and a child should be enjoying their time. That being said, it does not take the place of real learning and connection, so you want to keep them in the real world as much as possible.”

So how do you do that? We talked to the experts to find out what kind of screen time is best for toddlers, and how much you should limit it.

How early can kids start having screen time?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you keep kids screen-free until they’re two years of age. As they point out, “A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Not only that, but as Klein explains, “Screens work against one of the most essential developmental needs that a toddler has—to learn to delay gratification. It’s hard for toddlers and they gain it slowly over time.” Interactive, non-TV devices (like an iPad) provide instant gratification, and a child just wants more of it. If they’re immediately appeased by the screens, they’re not learning to delay gratification and regulate their emotions, which is why a parent has to limit the use.

So how much should you limit it?

Any time on a screen is time away from the real world, the real world that gives them hands-on, interactive learning and growing experiences. “Toddlers learn by doing and figuring things out—trying something, trying it another way, with all of their modes of learning engaged together,” says Klein. “This is how the brain develops, through all of these modes.” The more they’re on screens, they less they’re developing.

The AAP recommends no more than one to two hours per day of screen time, but according to Klein, it’s also important to remain consistent. “You should limit it to the same time of day, and to a specific room, so the limits are naturally being set. It also takes away the constant battles because there’s an expectation already there—it’s part of the routine.” For sure, though, experts recommend keeping all screens out of the bedroom.

The key thing to think about is why you’re giving it to your child. “My main advice to parents is to be mindful of when you are using it with your child, why, and for how long,” says Klein. “For example, is it to pacify your child? Because then it can quickly become a habit, one they need to quiet themselves. Is it just to give them that bit of time for fun and enjoyment? Is it because you need some peace and quiet?” Having an awareness will also help you set limits with the screens.

What’s preferable: iPads or TV?

When you watch your kid zoned out in front of the TV like a zombie, you might assume it’s far worse for him than playing educational games on a tablet. Turns out, it’s actually better for him! “Television does not tend to engage the child to the point that they lose sight of what’s going on around them—it’s not as fully encompassing as a digital device,” says Klein. It’s also easier to shut off the TV than to try and pry that iPad out of your child’s grip.

The key is to choose the right programming. And yes, parents need to pick what their kids watch. Experts recommend shows like Daniel Tiger, Paw Patrol, Dora, and Sesame Street, which not only are educational but teach valuable lessons as well.

As for their digital content, check the website Common Sense Media for recommendations and ratings. “Look for open-ended apps that allow exploration and creativity—not flashcard style rote response stuff,” says Georgene Troseth, PhD, a developmental and experimental psychologist at Vanderbilt, who studies young children’s learning and development. “Find content that allows for conversation and interaction with a parent, which is more likely to foster learning.”

But can’t screen time be educational?

“According to research, babies will learn little from screens, toddlers will learn some, but not very efficiently, but three to five year olds will learn a lot,” says Troseth. “However, children of any age will learn more if an adult or older child ‘scaffolds’ their learning by co-viewing and co-playing.” She recommends parents ask questions about what they’re doing, direct a child’s attention to important content, and connect what’s happening on the screen to what goes on in real life. For example, while watching TV, ask who a character is or why he’s taking bananas down from the tree, reference that time you picked lemons from a tree. If you’re playing a game on the tablet, ask them pointed questions that will help guide them to the right answers, like, “What rhymes with bat? House, dog, ball, cat?”

Don’t mistake some of the immediate learning that comes from digital devices as real education, though. “When an app says it’s educational, there’s no standard as to what that means—it’s a marketing label, without backing,” warns Klein. “The apps might help them recognize letters or numbers, or learn to write, but it’s questionable whether they will hold onto that knowledge over time,” warns Klein. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it, just don’t be fooled into thinking it’s necessarily the genuine learning they might get from counting five grapes at snack time or being asked to take out a blue shirt. 

What’s the biggest concern with screens?

Honestly, parenting experts are much less worried about your child’s use of screens and way more concerned about yours. “Parents need to be aware of their own use more than anything,” says Klein. “If they are constantly staring at their smartphone, then they can’t maintain the back and forth interactions that children need with parents. Distracted parenting is very harmful to young children, more than spending a couple of hours in front of the TV.”

Photo: Getty/SimplyMui Photography/The Image Bank

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