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Tech and the Modern Toddler

Your little one loves the games on your iPad and smartphone, but are they hurting or helping your child’s development? Explore the reasons for limiting your toddler’s screen time and strategies for avoiding the tempting glow of a screen.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children age 2 or younger avoid television, computers and other screen time, and that passive screen time (spent inactively watching) be limited for children age 3 and older. However, screens are everywhere and hard to get away from—what’s the big deal if your toddler plays a game while waiting for a table at a restaurant?

When Tech Hurts

Research on toddlers and technology has been limited, but there are several clear negative effects:

  • Irregular sleep patterns. For children younger than 3, screen time can disrupt sleep patterns at a time where reduced sleep often means more tantrums and behavioral problems.
  • Obesity. Children age 5 or younger who watch television have increased body mass index, and each hour of television per day correlates with an increased calorie consumption of 167 calories.
  • Reduced learning time. Toddlers are learning the building blocks of language and social interaction, but screen time can reduce the time spent learning from face-to-face interaction with adults and playtime with other children and books. Screen time during the toddler years is linked with delayed language acquisition, lower math achievement and reduced physical activity.

The bottom line? There is no such thing as good screen time for kids age 2 and younger. For children age 3 and older, you can’t go wrong by limiting screen time—current research does not suggest that apps and games marketed as being “educational” have positive effects for kids. Research has found that even when televisions are on solely to provide background noise, the screen interferes with face-to-face playtime for young children and toddlers.

When Tech Helps

The AAP’s recommendations for older children specifically concern passive screen time—when children are plopped in front of a television or computer with little to no other activity. The limited research available found that toddlers who interact with a human face on a screen through FaceTime, Skype or other applications can reap similar benefits as with face-to-face interaction.

Strategies for Screen-free Living

You don’t have to move to an isolated cave or island to avoid screen time for your toddler. Try these tips for keeping your family on a healthy media diet.

  • Limit the device count. The average American family has more than two televisions, and 30 percent of Americans have four or more televisions. Keep the number of televisions as low as possible, and think about how many mobile devices you truly need for your family.
  • Buy books instead. Exposure to books, even before your children can read, is beneficial for their development. Keep books around to read to your child and books your child can flip through on her own while you shower or cook dinner.
  • Get creative. Invest in art supplies—from a complete set of paints and brushes to a simple pack of crayons. Encourage your child to develop creative skills with art supplies instead of sitting in front of a screen.
  • Go outside. Playing outside on a regular basis can set kids on the right path to wellness.
  • Just play. Spend some time playing make-believe with your toddler, exploring the kitchen together or enjoying your child’s favorite toys.
  • Stand together. Make friends with like-minded parents who also want to limit their children’s screen time.

Older Siblings Sabotaging Screen Time

For toddlers with older siblings, the challenge of avoiding screens can be even greater when big brother and sister can watch television or play games on the smartphone.

Older children should understand the limits their baby sibling has on tech time—and have some limits of their own. Set specific times in your children’s schedule that they are allowed to watch television, and keep all screens in a communal area. Consider forgoing television altogether until all children in the house are older than age 2.

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