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This might seem like a question of our modern times, but people began asking it in the 1950s when TV became a household item in the US. Of course in those days children’s programming was practically non-existent, so the question garnered little traction. Nowadays things have significantly changed with dedicated kiddo channels on TV and on-demand services such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon which stream children’s content 24 hours day.

Chances are your baby or toddler has seen content on YouTube while you answer that important email or get dinner ready. Whether you use screens occasionally or regularly, you may be curious about the impact it has on young children and whether there is a better way to manage things.

In this article, we sift through some popular notions around managing screentime and hopefully provide you, the parent, with enough information to make a sound decision.

As a parent you are probably wondering what types of toys will be most beneficial for your child’s development and in a world full of smartphones and tablets where can these fit into this? Here we’ll break down a couple of studies that asksed a similar question:

A study carried out by Dr. Anna V. Sosa looks at the type of toy used in play with the quantity and quality of parent-infant communication. Basically, she compared the effects different types of toys had on children’s early development.

What she found was that electronic toys such as a baby laptops or cell phones don’t promote language development in children as well as books and other traditional toys like wooden puzzles and blocks do. The reason for this being these traditional books and toys need more time and personal connection than their electronic counterparts.

A baby pushing a button and hearing a noise develops some skills but it isn’t the same as them understanding a physical shape puzzle for example. Similarly, them again pushing that button and hearing a noise isn’t the same as a parent spending time and reading a book to them.

Sometimes it can be easy to just plop your little one down and let them entertain themselves with these electronic toys that are sure to hold their attention and it’s okay to do that occasionally but you shouldn’t let that be the norm when it comes to their playtime. You should be there to accompany them and help them engage in play in a much more developmentally stimulating level.

If you want to find some educationally focused toys for your toddler you should check out our list here.

Another study was carried out by Dr. Deirdre Murray which focused on Touch-screen technology usage in toddlers. What her study found is that regular touch screen device usage among children as young as 12 months is widespread. And by the age of 2 years old many toddlers have specific skills to interact purposefully with touch screen technology.

This study shows that children are able to use this technology well but similarly to the other electronic toys we touched on earlier there is a big difference for children to be using a tablet alone VS using one alongside parent.

With tablet usage being so popular among toddlers already, chances are you might have given your toddler a shot of yours every now and then. But how much time is too much? The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children under 18-24 months should have no screen time at all besides video chatting with family. Children aged 2-5 should get up to and hour of screen time per day.

Dr Murray stated in her study that “Interactive touchscreen applications offer a level of engagement not previously experienced with other forms of media and are more akin to traditional play.”  So there is a potential in touch screen tablets to positively influence your baby’s development.

But again, this relies on you to ensure they are consuming the right things during their screen time. So, you should be looking to use apps, games and videos that will engage their language and understanding development the most. We’d recommend saving things like learning colours, colouring in and puzzles for traditional play as these will help develop more fine motor skills alongside the main cognitive aspects.

Screens and babies

Babies under 18 months of age are naturally interested in moving around and exploring their environment in a tactile manner. And a good job too, as their hand-eye coordination is still developing. The neural pathways in the brain are forming at a rapid rate, and the stimulus from the baby’s environment and awareness of the limits of their own bodies are the raw data the brain needs to do its job. Moreover, the eyes are still mastering the art of focussing quickly between objects near and far. Screens because of their static nature, do not need the baby’s eyes to shift focus.

Most parents know how tempting it is to put some nursery rhyme playlist on YouTube and sit their baby in front of it. It gives you that precious time to catch up on chores piling up and perhaps relax a bit after a sleepless night or even to relieve the general boredom. Over time, a short nursery rhyme can slowly build up to a few hours of automated playlist content.

Watching with your child

Sometimes complete restriction is not possible to implement, for instances when you have children of different ages or when you spend time with friends or family with older children. The way out of it is to find quality content and watch with your kid. Try to see what they find interesting, it may give you ideas. For example, if your child loves nursery rhymes, you can get them relevant picture books that you will enjoy reading together. If they are obsessed with ‘Wheels on the bus,’ you can easily tempt them outside by promising to see or ride on a bus.

If you watch the content with your child, you would quickly learn to distinguish the high-quality content from the hours and hours of poor material that is available on tap. Small children are drawn to repetitive patterns, bright colors and music and therefore it is hard to find high-quality content for them. Try vetting a selection of songs and rhymes for them on your own before introducing them to it.

Automated playlists and dangers

A word of caution about YouTube. Avoid leaving small children for a long time on YouTube especially if you are not monitoring the content with them. YouTube is governed by AI algorithms, rather than humans, and very quickly children could start watching inappropriate content. It is common now for children to see traumatic and frightening images on YouTube after an hour’s viewing of something innocuous like Peppa Pig. Aside from this, exposure to ads is also something to consider. Videos like repetitive unwrapping of kinder eggs may be puzzling for you, but they attract high revenues from advertisers. Children might be exposed to ads for at least half the time they are on screens. You can mitigate these particular risks by using YouTube Kids, a variant manned by humans and ad-free but it’s not flawless. Setting a timer and keep an eye on what your little one is watching.

It is easier to find suitable content for older children, but while they are young, you have to watch out for impact on their brains and muscle groups as discussed earlier.

Self-regulation – does it work?

Think of an ice cream that you love. If you walk past a stand that is selling it, you may really want it. Once you have finished it, you may want another one but probably not as much as before. If you eat the second one, chances are you probably don’t want a third one. You are likely to want every subsequent ice cream less than the one before it. This is the main argument in favor of self-regulation – you don’t keep wanting the object of your desire ad infinitum – you eventually want to move away from it and explore other things.

Does this hold true for babies and toddlers? While some people say yes, others disagree. Ideally provide small kids with varied and diverse options, with the same concern you would bring to their nutritional requirements.

Screentime as reward

Many parents use screentime as a reward. This works for some children but has the potential for backfiring for many. Kids can start looking at screens as an unusual activity above and beyond others. When they see adults on their screens, they may feel jealous and resentful. They may think that they are not being given the ‘treat’ that others can freely have. Imagine being a child, and seeing how your parents always have chocolate in their mouths but you only get it if you are good. It is wise to allocate screens a status no higher than other fun activities like going to the park or having friends over.

 

Older kids

Many people feel that letting children be comfortable with technology is crucial as it is indispensable in adulthood. Most adults now, cannot function without their smartphones – a device practically non-existent a mere decade ago. There are many digital jobs available now, and we can expect that industry to grow into the future. Jobs in gaming and designing apps may be very appealing to young adults and will require them to develop not only their creativity but logical faculties too.

Other concerns parents feel when talking about restricting screens, albeit for older children, is whether they can mingle with their peers effectively if they cannot join in playground conversations about common games and programmes – a topic rife in such settings. But again, you have time to think about these scenarios when you are caring for a toddler.

Your little one may have screentime for entertainment, education or to provide you with some respite. If you are concerned about whether you rely on it too much, act on your hunch. Don’t feel guilty, you are not alone in navigating this tricky issue. Instead, think about what other fun things you can do together and introduce a gradual change to a more varied lifestyle.

Screen time for Babies and Toddlers – Summary

In a nutshell if you are wanting to get your young one familiar with technology early or they’re always trying to steal their dads’ tablet, this isn’t a bad thing at all and their curiosity should be encouraged but you shouldn’t take a relaxed attitude toward it either. You should consider the following points:

  • Approach it with solid ground rules by setting a good example, establishing limits and ensure that you are watching/interacting with age-appropriate material.
  • You should be supervising and interacting with your toddler during screen time. So, if you are watching a program together you could talk to them about what you can see etc
  • You should research any programs, games or apps before you watch/play them with your toddler. A lot of apps or YouTube videos claim to be educational, but not all of them are.
  • Screen time shouldn’t be the main source of entertainment for your toddler, it is important that they engage in unstructured and active play in order to develop essential skills. So, screen time should only take up a small part of their day.
  • Toddlers aged 2-5 should have up-to an hour of screen time a day.

What do you think about letting toddlers use screens in their playtime? We’d love to hear your opinions on this broad subject, so let us know in the comment box below!

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Hena Chowdhury - part of the Stuff4Tots editorial team
Hena Chowdhury

Hena is a writer, editor and professional video editor with several years experience in fields of writing, theatre, filmmaking and community work especially young people.

Her love for travelling has seen her drive around Europe with her family and her cats and backpack around India for seven months. Hena's blogs written during these travels were read and shared widely - giving her an additional feather in my cap - that of being an imaginative travel writer with a unique perspective of parenting in semi nomadic ways outside of mainstream.

On top of all that Hena's ability to fluently read and write in English, Hindi and Bengali make her a competent translator.