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.
How to Limit Your Child’s Screen Time
You might feel overwhelmed when it’s time to enforce screen-time rules for all the devices your kids use. “It was much easier when all we had was TV and videos, because we could, say, place limits based on the number of episodes a child watched,” Radesky says. Still, there are easy ways you can keep their time with media in check.
Plan ahead. Let your kids know that TV, tablet, or phone time is only allowed at certain times of day or on the weekends. “It's always helpful to have a schedule or routine, since preschoolers are very routine-driven and will tend to accept limits better this way,” Radesky says.
Make rules about where your family watches screens, such as in shared spaces like the kitchen or living room. Discourage devices at dinner, during family time, and in bedrooms. Research shows that kids with TVs in their rooms get less sleep.
Set a timer. When it buzzes, your child’s time with their screen is up.
Stop tantrums before they start. Kids often get upset when they have to put down their technology. As they switch off the screen, you might play a game based on the shows they like or have another activity ready for them.
Out of sight, out of mind. When screen time is over, try storing tablets, phones, and other devices where they can’t see them.
What to Do When the Screens Are Off
Preschool children need lots of face-to-face interaction to help them learn social and motor skills, Sowell says. You can help remind kids that there are many more exciting things to do than to stare at a screen.
Read together. “It helps build language and literacy skills, promotes emotional connection, and gives the child time to be calm and attentive,” Radesky says.
Use your imagination. Unstructured play helps your child learn social and emotional skills and how to solve problems.
Move around. “It could be dancing, running, making a fort, or play-wrestling, but studies suggest that physical movement helps children focus more and channel their energy,” Radesky says.
Try hands-on activities. Build, color, craft, or cook with your kids. “These are important for learning to collaborate, building social reciprocity, carrying out a plan, and building visual-spatial awareness,” Radesky says.