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Screen time for kids (5 and under)
Your simple, research-backed guide to what, when, and how much
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Summary for busy sapiens
The AAP and WHO recommend 1 hour per day (or less) for kids 2-5.
Research supports kids having plenty of time to sleep, be active, and engage with other people. It does not support a strict 1-hour cutoff.
Some good, educational shows: Daniel Tiger, Super WHY!, Sesame Street
Kids under 3 can’t learn much from screens. Co-viewing (i.e., watching together with them) helps them learn more.
Limit screen time battles by having a plan and sticking to it.
My son is now 20 months old,and we’re watching him blossom, before our eyes, into a beautiful, curious toddler.
Like, just last night, two minutes after sitting down to eat, when he plunged his hands into a bowl of yogurt, ate nothing, and then screamed MAMA WIPE YOU OFF, demanding I (and only I) wash off his hands and face immediately.
Or earlier this week, when he grabbed a tiny, wooden letter “T”—the remnants of an aspirational, Montessori-style puzzle we once bought—and wedged it into his cheek. And then when I said not in your mouth, he pulled it out, locked eyes with me, and, smiling maniacally, slowly placed it on his tongue without breaking eye contact.
Oh, and then there’s the kicking. Lots of kicking. During diaper changes, to avoid getting picked up,to signal he wanted milk but now that you poured it he changed his mind and doesn’t want it. In fact, he doesn’t even want to look at it or think about it and what were you thinking?!
Of course, I forget entirely about the screaming and toy-eating and kicking—so much kicking—when he says love you mama and delivers a slobbery smooch. Or when he spends the day with this towel over his head, scampering around the house, gleefully shouting LOBSTER IN HOUSE.
In sum, it seems we have a toddler on our hands.
And so, now seems as good a time as any for us to revisit some research-backed screen time guidance for little ones. We’ll focus our discussion on roughly ages 1.5 to 5.
You’re doing great. Seriously.
Here’s the problem with parenting advice: sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you break out a textbook okay-the-feeling (I see that you feel angry about taking a bath) and a nice, calm hold-the-boundary (and now it’s time to get into the bath), and your child still screeches as if being chased by a bear, foot-firing and scratching the sides of the tub in a desperate attempt to escape.
And when the parenting advice doesn’t work, we’re made to feel as if it’s our fault. If I’d just done a better job creating a bathtime routine, maybe he wouldn’t have thrown that rubber duck at my eyes.
Here’s the thing: we’re all doing our best. Kids are unpredictable, irrational, adorable
monsters human beings. Sometimes, things work. Sometimes, they don’t. Things that are realistic for one family are totally impractical for others. It’s about experimenting and finding what works for us.
So, let’s do our best to take this advice (and all parenting advice) as suggestions to try, not an indictment of what we’re doing “right” or “wrong.”
How much screen time should I allow?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:
0-18 months: no screens except for video-chatting
18-24 months: no “solo” media use (i.e., watching without a parent), make it educational. No guidance on time.
2-5 years old: 1 hour or less per day of “high quality” programming
The World Health Organization recommends the following:
0-24 months: no screen time
2-4 years old: 1 hour per day (but “less is better”)
And here’s how much kids are actually using screens on average:
The reasoning behind the AAP and WHO guidelines makes sense. Kids, especially babies and toddlers, learn best from high-quality interactions with humans (their parents, in particular). In the research, these interactions are called “serve-and-return” (i.e., a child “serves” the beginnings of an interaction by speaking, pointing, or crying, and a parent “returns” the interaction by responding promptly, consistently, and appropriately). Kids need serve-and-return interactions to learn language, emotion regulation, and other skills. They also need lots of physical activity and play, plus adequate sleep. If screen time is getting in the way of these things, that’s a problem.
But is there data to support a strict 1-hour cutoff? Or a sudden jump at exactly 24 months? No. Ultimately, these are arbitrary. They can serve as a guideline, and it’s nice to have a specific number to keep in our back pockets. But what’s more important is all the other things our kids are doing during the 24 hours of their days. Are they eating, sleeping, getting exercise, playing, engaging with us and other people? That’s what matters.
Note: I see the idea behind a statement like the WHO’s “less is better,” but ultimately, I do not think this is helpful. First, it’s not actually true that less than one hour is necessarily better than one hour. Second, it places an inherent value judgment on parenting decisions (i.e., a *better* parent would allow less than 1 hour). Stop judging us, WHO!
What should they watch?
Alright, now let’s imagine we’ve managed to overcome the guilt wrought by strict screen time guidelines and public health statements, and we’re ready to let our kids watch. What should we turn on?
First: make sure it’s developmentally-appropriate. Young kids can get scared easily from things they see on TV, especially because they have difficulty separating fact from fiction at this age. Sometimes, the things that scare them may surprise us. When I was younger, I was absolutely terrified of the scenes in Home Alone where Macaulay Culkin screams, as an example.Common Sense Media’s TV show reviews can offer some guidance.
Once we’re sure it’s appropriate, then it’s time for the million-dollar question: does it need to be educational? The short answer is no. Children are not harmed by screen time that’s purely for entertainment value, just like we are not harmed by watching The Bachelor,even if we’re not actively learning something.
At the same time, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of: if they’re going to be watching anyway, it might as well teach them something. Further, “educational” shows are more likely to contain nice messages and values, and less likely to sneak in scary or inappropriate stuff. So, they may be the safer bet.
Researchers have identified four important qualities (or “pillars”) of a good educational show, based on the science of learning. Here they are:
Active: shows should actively involve kids, like via characters asking them questions or encouraging them to repeat letters and numbers
Engaging: shows should find the right balance of challenging and accessible. Looking for age-appropriate shows helps with this.
Meaningful: shows should help kids make meaningful connections to their daily lives. Things that help with this: repetition (watching the same show repeatedly), using toys or reading books about the characters, and parents pointing out real-life connections to the show.
Socially interactive: shows should have “socially meaningful” characters (rather than, say, a disembodied voice), so the child can feel like they “get to know” them.
Here are some shows that fit the bill (with research to back them up!). A randomized controlled trial of 565 families of kids ages 3-5 found that when parents substituted their kids’ regular TV viewing with shows like these, kids showed fewer behavioral and emotional problems:
Dora the Explorer
These shows can also be helpful for teaching certain values, and for helping kids learn skills (e.g., belly breathing for self-regulation on Sesame Street; sharing and using your words on Daniel Tiger). A study of 121 families of kids ages 3-6 found that those randomly assigned to watch Daniel Tiger, versus the show Bubble Guppies (the control group), showed better social-emotional skills one month later.
For older kids (starting around age 5), the shows they’ll want to watch may depend a bit more on their interests. Shows on PBS Kids are generally a good bet.
Can they actually learn stuff from TV?
It depends on their age.
Research suggests that starting at about age 3, kids can learn some words and concepts from TV. They will still learn more, in most cases, from “offline” activities and in-person interactions, but learning can happen from TV shows, especially those that are engaging and social (see above).
For kids under age 3 (and definitely under 2.5), they will learn far less, if anything, from screens versus in-person interactions. This is sometimes called the “video deficit.” But wait! You may be thinking. I put on Great British Baking Show yesterday and now my kid is running around saying “Battenburg cake.” Clearly they’re learning something! It is possible that kids this age will repeat words they hear from TV, but they’re unlikely to actually learn what those words mean in “real life.” Your child is unlikely to recognize a Battenburg cake next time they come across one.
Here is one thing that can help reduce the “video deficit”: co-viewing, or watching along with our kids. This is true for kids of any age. A 2020 meta-analysis in JAMA Pediatrics finds that across 12 studies, co-viewing TV with caregivers was associated with stronger child language skills.
When we watch a show with our kids, we’re able to reinforce any learning that takes place. So, we might be saying things like, Wow, it seems like Daniel is feeling excited to make veggie pizza with Katarina! Or, next time our child is feeling nervous, we might find ourselves singing the old classic See What It Is, You Might Feel Better. Note: adults can learn from TV, and some of those songs are extremely catchy. Proceed at your own risk.
Of course, we’re not always going to watch along with our kids. In many cases, the very reason we’re turning on the TV is because we need to do things that do not, in fact, involve shouting the letter L at Elmo. That is okay.
How do I stop screen time from being a battle?
And finally, we come to perhaps the biggest question of all. Once you start screen time, how do you…stop it? How do you turn off the TV or iPad without them losing their minds?
Before screen time
Make sure they know what to expect. This can come in the form of a regular routine (i.e., everyday, after we finish lunch, we watch one episodes of Daniel Tiger) or simply a plan you describe in advance (i.e., after we clean up our toys, we’ll watch two episodes of Bluey. Then, when it’s over, we will turn off the TV and have lunch.)
Consider giving a simple choice. This helps them feel in control. You can watch one episode today. Do you want to watch Daniel Tiger or Bluey?
Give a simple rationale. We are going to watch TV for 30 minutes because, after that, we need to go pick up your brother from school.
During screen time
Consider whether you want to use an iPad or TV. Some families find it’s easier to turn off and walk away from a TV. Others find it easier to keep an eye on what’s happening with an iPad. It’s up to you.
If there’s no clear end point to whatever it is they’re watching, consider a visual timer, so they know how much time they have left to watch.
Give 5- and/or 2-minute warnings before screen time is over. Make sure they can see and hear you.
Consider snuggling up on the couch and watching together (see above).
After screen time
Once you set a limit, stick to it. This is hard, I know. But let’s say you said “one episode.” The episode ends, you say “okay, time is up,” and they start screaming NOOOO. If you give in, they learn that screaming NO is a good way to get more screen time. If you stick to it, they learn that screaming NO is unlikely to work, so they’re less likely to do it next time (see this post for more on discipline).
You can validate how they’re feeling, while still holding a limit. It can be really disappointing when it’s time to turn off the TV. And now it’s time to go pick up your brother.
When they follow instructions, use positive reinforcement. I love how you listened so nicely when I asked you to turn off the TV!
A final piece of advice
If you’re unsure whether a show lives up to the hype—say, White Lotus Season 2—have your child watch it in advance and let you know what they think. Ask them questions like: Should I bother watching? Was it better than Season 1? How does Jennifer Coolidge’s character evolve in this season?
[I’m kidding. Don’t do this.]
But actually: trust your gut. Let go of the guilt. You’re doing great.
A quick survey
What did you think of this week’s Techno Sapiens? Your feedback helps me make this better. Thanks!
What’s the general consensus on when to stop giving your child’s age in months (versus years)? I remember, before becoming a parent, wondering why parents do this. Now, saying that my child is “a year and a half” when he’s actually 20 months feels like outright deception.
It’s actually unbelievable how skilled kids are at avoiding getting picked up when they don’t want to be. My son somehow manages to assume the stance of an Olympic diver—arms straight up, next to his ears, totally aerodynamic—which, combined with football-style foot-firing, makes it near impossible to grab hold.
We’ve been talking a lot about teens here lately and truly, I love teens! I really do! But will a teen run around the house pretending to be a lobster? No. Okay, maybe. But it will probably be less cute.
Not addressed in the AAP guidelines: what to do when the family member you are FaceTiming is midway through a sentence, and your child starts yelling PUSH THE RED BUTTON and BYE-BYE, as a means to end the conversation.
Still a little scared of Macauley, if I’m being honest.
Okay, but we might actually be a little bit harmed by watching The Bachelor. How? How do you watch this show without covering your eyes and sweating with second-hand embarrassment? The Bachelor might just be my current Home Alone.
Note: you can use screen time selectively without it being a regular part of each day. Just try to prepare your child for what to expect beforehand (i.e., While we’re on the plane, we can watch as much Miss Rachel as we want. When the plane lands, we will put the iPad away.) As it turns out, we recently had a 12+ hour travel day on the way to a family wedding. I was left wondering, as I often do, how parents ever survived air travel without iPads.
I know I’m extremely late on this, but I think I liked Season 1 better?