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Babies and Toddlers: The Definitive Answers to Screen-Time Questions

Common Sense Media logo Common Sense Media 5/2/2016 Caroline Knorr

Next to formula vs. breastfeeding, the amount of screen time to give infants and toddlers has to be one of the most controversial issues new parents face. On one side are the hard-liners: No screens for kids under 2! On the other are those who just say, "Why not?"

If you're one of the many new parents who are confused and worried about screen media, take heart. Much of what you've probably heard -- that any screen time is bad -- isn't supported by research. That said, what's best for babies -- interactions with loving caregivers, the ability to explore their worlds, and exposure to language -- can't be replaced by a screen. As with most things, the answers lie somewhere in the middle. Here's the definitive guide to managing movies, TV, the Internet, apps, games, and more.

How much screen time is really OK for babies under 2?
Some parents worry that exposing their kids to any TV or screen time could be damaging. Take it from us; a little bit of media isn't gonna hurt. We simply encourage parents to limit time with screen media for kids under 2 or to use media as a means of furthering and cementing your relationship with them. The most important thing is that time spent with screens don't replace time spent with their loving caregiver. Try the ideas below in small amounts -- say, 15 or 30 minutes.

  • Explore new words, ideas, sounds, and pictures online.
  • Show kids a photo of themselves and name parts of their face.
  • Scroll through all your pictures, name the people, and talk about them.

Does FaceTime or Skype with Grandma count as screen time?
Video-chatting with a grandparent is a great way to build cross-generational relationships or bond with a relative who's away. If you're counting screen-time minutes, video-chatting should be excluded. It's really no different from talking to a family member on the phone (and it's actually easier to involve babies and toddlers since they can respond to facial expressions better than verbal language alone).

Is it OK to keep the TV on when I'm with my baby?
This is risky. Role modeling healthy media habits is important. So-called "background TV" can lead to fewer interactions with your child and less conversation, both of which have real impact on kids' development. The images and tone of what's on the screen are problematic, too. Infants sense emotions and experiences in a very real way, whether from their mothers or from actors on the screen. If you need to keep the TV on, mute the commercials, avoid mature content, and make an effort to talk and play with baby as much as possible.

My baby has a tantrum if I don't let her use my iPhone.
Respond as you would for any other tantrum and use your normal consequences. If handing over the phone has become a habit, it'll take some time to curb her outbursts. Transition into using the phone together -- such as showing her photos of herself or watching short videos together -- so she'll get used to it being a shared experience. And begin to show her how you use the phone as a tool -- not a treat. As with everything else she wants and can't have, she'll develop the ability to self-soothe with your help. At some point, she'll understand "Mama's phone" and can learn how to ask for it politely.

My baby loves to watch short videos of kittens and puppies online. Is that OK?
If you're enjoying them together and keeping your viewing sessions fairly limited (those videos tend to draw you in for longer than planned), it sounds just fine. Your baby is enjoying the closeness with you as much as the videos.

Extend the experience by visiting a neighbor with a friendly dog, getting books on baby animals, and practicing all the animal noises you can think of. At this age, you want to make media a shared experience and an opportunity for learning.

What should I know before showing my toddler her first TV show?
First, consider whether she has the attention span to watch a full show. Many series designed for the youngest viewers break shows into 10- or 15-minute segments. Start with a single segment of a show and see how engaged she is. If she's riveted, you can try a 30-minute show. You have literally thousands of options. Find a subject she likes, check our age ratings and reviews, determine a limit (one show, two shows?), and watch together if you can. Get more ideas for introducing preschoolers to their first TV shows.

Which TV shows are best for very young children?
TV shows that are short, gentle, have positive messages, and are ad-free (ideally) are best for young kids. They enjoy programs with very simple messages they can relate to (such as getting dressed in the morning). Try any top picks from these lists: Best Preschool TV, Sprout TV, and Disney Jr. TV. And keep these tips in mind:

  • Many half-hour shows, such as Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, actually contain several shorter segments you can start with.
  • Avoid scary stuff, explosions, people yelling, and cartoon violence.
  • Look for shows with positive messages, such as the value of being a good friend.
  • Do what you can to limit commercial exposure -- kids absorb those messages like a sponge.

If I'm restricting screen media, what can I do to occupy my kid while I take a break?
It can be exhausting building blocks, playing dolls, and digging in the sandbox all day with your toddler. Here are some ideas to help kids occupy themselves, so you can put up your feet (or get dinner started):

  • Listen to music. Young kids love to shake, shake, shake to all kinds of beats and sounds. Encourage kids to move and shake to the music and to make sounds themselves.
  • Have them "read" books. Just the act of holding books and flipping pages can prime kids for a future love of reading. They can pretend they're reading to a stuffed animal.
  • Play audiobooks. The act of hearing helps with language acquisition, imagination, and critical listening skills. Set up a comfy space where your child can play with blocks or dolls while listening to an age-appropriate story.

Is it OK to take my baby to the movie theater?
Infants are too young to understand the action on the screen, but the environment could be overstimulating. Also, cinema-quality sound systems are really loud and could be too intense for little ones.

If you want to give the theater a try, sit in the quietest seat and be prepared to leave if things take a bad turn. You might be lucky enough to live near one of those theaters designed for families, or your local theater might host a mom-and-dad's night where they turn the sound down and the lights up to make it more baby-friendly.

Should I limit my phone use when I'm with baby?
You may be craving adult conversation and connection -- or maybe you need to work from home while watching the baby. The most important thing is to make sure you're keeping an eye on him; there have been instances of kids hurting themselves because their parents were distracted by their phones.

Young kids learn best through nurturing relationships with caregivers and loved ones, so make sure your phone use doesn't interfere. Talk, play, hug, and make eye contact with infants as much as possible. Use screens in service of relationship-building (showing a photo of grandma) or to occupy yourself while the baby is sleeping on top of you.

What can I say to family and friends with more lenient screen-time rules?
Everyone has different screen-time rules. It can be tough to talk about because you don't want to come off as judgmental -- or maybe you just don't want to start a conflict. But if your kid is going to be spending a significant amount of time with kids whose parents have different rules, it is absolutely within your right -- and your kid's best interest -- to explain what you're comfortable with. Soften the blow by saying, for example, "I know I turn into a control freak when it comes to media, but it's really important to me, and since I know our kids will be friends for a long time, I want you to know where I'm coming from."

Sometimes bending your own rules for the benefit of social harmony is the way to go, but only you can make that call. Get more ideas for telling others your screen-time rules.

Here are some of the key issues to discuss, especially as your kid gets older:

  • Time limits. State your preference. Say, "I'm OK with the kids watching a movie, but I'd like them to play on their playdate, too."
  • Content. Tell the parents that your kid is frightened by scary stuff and that you have a particular "thing" about him watching shows or playing games with potentially frightening images.
  • Supervision. How close of an eye do the other parents keep on the kids -- especially when the kids are on the Internet? Ask if they have content filters installed on their search engines.
  • Multiplayer games. Find out if the other kids in the house play multiplayer games. If your kid isn't familiar with them, ask if multiplayer can be turned off until he gets the hang of the game. Make sure to talk to your kid about playing online games responsibly and respectfully.
  • Tech-free zones.Keep family and social gatherings tech-free. Recharge devices overnight -- outside your kid's bedroom to help them avoid the temptation to use them when they should be sleeping. These changes encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep, all critical for kid's wellness.

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