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Toddlers & TV & Screens Oh My

By Amalah

Hi Amy! I’ve been wondering about a pretty hotly-debated topic, and of course, my first thought was to find out your take on it: Toddlers and screen time.

My daughter is 19 months old, and we really don’t “do” screen time. I think we’ve let her sit down and watch an actual baby/kids program (of a couple of minutes) 10 times? Five? Mixed in with that we know they occasionally put on short, theme-appropriate videos at her daycare. When she’s at her grandparents’ house, sometimes they put something on for a few minutes for her, which we’re okay with.

I’ve read TV before 18 months = BAD, and between 18 and 24 months = NOT AS BAD BUT STILL NOT GOOD. At this age, should I allow her more videos or programs? I don’t want to be a crazy TV tyrant. But I dread constantly having to negotiate with a toddler over more TV and fear falling into overusing it as the “easy” option. (We’re having a baby this spring, so also want to prep for TV/videos as a tool for us / activity for our daughter when we need it, but not suddenly opening the floodgates for it to take the place of actual play or interaction.)

Thoughts? When’s the right time to introduce programming as an actual activity?

Thank you!

My rules for little kids and screen time

Here’s my  two-part “rule” of thumb when it comes to toddlers/young preschoolers and screen time:

1. If you can successfully navigate your day without screens (television and tablets/apps), awesome. That’s probably your best option for a multitude of reasons (developmental, behavioral, etc.).

2. HOWEVER, it’s a day by day by day battle, so do not beat yourself up on the days when you’re like, OMG, here, watch some Elmo or tap on some animated ducks or whatever. You are not failing her or permanently scrambling her synapses because you need to take a shower or stave off a public boredom meltdown or I don’t know, distract her while you trim her toenails or attempt to keep her butt on the potty.

My children love screens. Lovvvvvvvve screens. TV, movies, video games, apps, computers — you name it, their eyeballs adore it. But this love has never taken the place of actual play, interaction, and imagination. (Although as kids get older, gaming can and does become a social activity in and of itself, with plenty of room for imagination/collaboration through creative multi-player games like Minecraft and such.) It’s just another thing they enjoy doing, and when the screens turn off they are all more than capable of returning to their puzzles, books, paints, Legos, imaginary play picnics in the backyard. etc. So I think we can dispel the myth that occasionally letting your preschooler bingewatch some PBS Kids fare on a sick day or long car ride will mean you’re doomed to raise a friendless zombie vegetable.

(We so have a lot of screen time rules and content restrictions in place, however.)

You should be realistic and flexible

You’re right to worry that it will be overly tempting to default to TV as the “easy” option. Because it IS an easy option. But again, in the real world, parenting is all about compromises and balancing out the “best” or “ideal” option (i.e. all organic homemade food with zero sugar and mountains of whole grain all the time) with the “realistic” or “good enough” option (i.e. OMG I overslept and the baby’s diaper blew out and I’m late for work quick here’s a squeezy yogurt tube and a granola bar). Sometimes the “easy” option can really be your only option, particularly when you’ve got more than one child in the mix and are just desperately trying to prioritize everyone’s needs the best you can. Kids get sick, childcare falls through, tantrums happen. Sometimes you just need to ensure that a newly-mobile baby will stay put for 15 minutes and not try to scale the bookshelves while you duck into the bathroom.

(That last sentence may sound like hyperbole, but seriously, I have the notes and rough outline for an anthology of actual injuries and household catastrophes from my children’s toddlerhoods with the working title of While You Were Peeing.)

Screens aren’t going anywhere, and I personally think it’s pretty pointless to pretend they don’t exist and won’t be a big part of our children’s lives at some point, and not just for stand-in babysitting/entertainment. (My kids’ schoolwork is all increasingly online, they all enjoy learning to code and animate, 10 year olds be texting, etc.). It’s another facet of life we all need to find a balance we’re individually comfortable with…and cut each other some slack if we don’t get it right or perfect every single day.

Your “default” should not be to turn screens on

If you don’t NEED to turn the TV on, don’t. Let her play and explore and talk with you. Don’t use the TV as nonstop background noise, even if it’s tuned to a children’s channel. Set reasonable boundaries like no screens at the dinner table (and apply this rule to you and your phone as well) and no screens/tablets/electronics in her bedroom.  Store TV remotes and screens somewhere that she can’t get to them, and consider connecting your TV to one of those WiFi smart plugs so it won’t turn on even if she hits the power button. That way you’re in full control and she’ll learn that no TV really does mean no TV.

(None of this guarantees that your daughter will never ask for more TV and screen time than you want to give her, or that you won’t ever find yourself negotiating with her about it. That’s just life with a preschooler over everything, from one more cookie to 10 more minutes until bedtime.)

The “official” guidelines for kids and TV have shifted back and forth over the years — my firstborn was from the era when people genuinely thought plopping an infant in front of a Baby Einstein video was excellent brain stimulation — but the American Academy of Pediatrics has some pretty good, common sense advice about it. After 18 months, opt for high-quality, educational programming and watch it with your child whenever possible, so screen time isn’t by default passive “alone” time, and so you can incorporate what they’re watching into real-life lessons and observations. (“Remember what Big Bird said about sharing?” “Let’s count our cookies like Dora!” and etc.)

So if you want to show her some cute educational cartoons that address becoming a big sister or see what she thinks of Elmo’s Potty Time, go for it. Those can be nice and helpful for young children (although also WILDLY ANNOYING for adults). If she’s melting down in a waiting room or crying at the prospect of a vaccination, there’s nothing wrong with pulling up a Blue’s Clues clip on YouTube for a little distraction. If you’re running on 45 minutes of sleep because the baby kept you up all night and feel a cold coming on, don’t feel like you’re a completely terrible mother for letting her watch two episodes of Super Why (or more) instead of just one. We’ve all been there. And I don’t think we broke any of our children as a result.

More articles on young children, TV, and screen time:

1. Toddlers & The Tube
2. TV and Montessori (and School, In General)
3. Raising Children in a TV World


Photo source: Depositphotos/olesiabilkei



About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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