When you have little kids, it’s easy to hand them a smartphone or tablet to soothe or entertain them. Sometimes, it’s just what you need to buy a few minutes of distraction while you’re waiting in line or on the phone. Screen time limits, however, are especially important for younger kids.
“There are a lot of skills that preschoolers need to learn that involve social interaction that might not be happening on a two-dimensional screen,” says Elizabeth Sowell, PhD, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends preschoolers use screens no more than 1 to 2 hours a day. In our tech-savvy world, that includes TV shows, streaming videos, games or apps, and websites.
Why the limits? Too much screen use in early childhood has been linked to language delays, trouble in school, obesity, and sleep problems, says Jenny Radesky, MD, an assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School. She’s also a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media.
She says parents should plan out their child’s screen time -- how much and what they watch -- “so that media use doesn't start to displace other important activities.”
What should they watch? On-screen violence in shows and games isn’t appropriate for young kids, of course. Steer them to programs that have an educational element. Research has shown that preschoolers can learn from educational television shows. A 2015 study looked at Sesame Street and its effects on education over time after the show debuted in 1969. The kids who watched regularly were more likely to do well in school and stay on grade-level.
“I tell my patients' parents to trust programs coming out of PBS Kids, Sesame Workshop, and the Fred Rogers Institute, among others, because these organizations hire developmental psychologists to help them craft the most appropriate, educational, and engaging programs,” Radesky says.
Also, when your kids do watch or play on a screen, watch or play along with them. “Studies do show that toddlers and preschoolers learn more from screen media when their parents watch with them,” Radesky says. You can answer questions about what they see on screen and help them process what they learn.