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.

Official guidelines

There are no studies which definitively answer whether screens are good or bad for children. Instead, we have some guidelines that are based more on what children might be missing out on by being on devices. These guidelines differ across studies and countries, to further complicate matters.

The American Academy of Paediatrics Screen Time Guidelines (2016) recommends: “For children younger than 18 months, avoid the use of screen

media other than video-chatting.” It further states, “For children aged 2 to 5 years, screen use should be limited to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs.” For children older than this, the guidelines suggest restricting screentime to under 2 hours a day. You can read their full recommendations here.

In contrast, The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in the UK do not recommend any specific cut off for screentime (read their research here). They instead ask you to consider the following questions for your household, and unless any of them ring alarm bells for you, you can rest reassured. These key questions are

1. Is screen time in your household controlled?

2. Does screen use interfere with what your family wants to do?

3. Does screen use interfere with sleep?

4. Are you able to control snacking during screen time?

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.