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New Media and Toddlers Guidelines from Child Development Experts

Katrina Wharton | 2, December 2014


Today's child is exposed to far more media options than previous generations. Children play on smartphones, tablets, computers, and watch TV. Claire Lerner, LCSW, from Zero to Three, and Rachel Barr, PhD from the psychology department and director of the Georgetown Early Learning Project at Georgetown University, set out to develop guidelines for parents to give some research-based answers to parents wanting to know how to best use media and how to avoid problems.

Here are some somewhat startling statistics regarding children and screen time:

Toddlers between the ages 0 to 23 months watch an average of 55 minutes a day of TV, while 2 to 4 year olds are watching an hour and a half of TV daily.

Smartphone use in children 8 and under occurs in 51 percent, while tablet use occurs in 44 percent.

Compared to just two years ago, media use has soared among the younger set. In little ones under 2, the rate rose to 38 percent compared to 10 percent; in 2 to 4 year olds, the rate went from 39 percent to 80 percent; and in 5 to 8 year olds, the increase was from 52 percent two years ago to 83 percent.

While children do learn from these devices, they learn faster and better from real world, face to face exchanges. It is important to have plenty of interactions with children and not use screen time as a babysitter and teacher.

For this reason, the researchers give these guidelines:

Limit viewing time to ensure plenty of real world play and experiences in the 3 D world. Babies and toddlers have limited awake and alert hours in the day, make sure they are getting enough adult interaction.

Help baby connect with what they see on the screen to real life. After watching an activity on TV, show the real world equivalent. Was a game with a ball displayed on the screen? Then play with a ball after the viewing.

Extend learning from the screen to real life. For instance, if baby plays a shape game on the tablet, later show baby some shape blocks and let them match the blocks to the correct shaped holes on a sorter toy. If colors were the topic on a video, then sort items at home by color together.

Use repetition to the best effect. We know children love multiple viewings, so in each viewing highlight different aspects, such as naming the fruit in the first viewing, counting the fruit in the next, and so on.

Make watching interactive. Talk about what the child is watching and discuss it later. Play a game based on concepts covered in a game or show.

Research has shown that just having a TV on in the background has a negative effect on children's abilities to concentrate on other activities, and can impair sleep function. For these reasons, follow these guidelines:

  • If no one is watching, turn off the TV.
  • Limit having the TV on while children are playing.
  • Watch TV geared to adults when children are not present.

It matters what children watch. Educational programs geared to little ones don't seem to carry the negative potential that fast paced entertainment programs or other programs do for children. For this reason:

  • Choose content carefully when letting children view programming, and make sure it's interactive and not fast-paced.
  • Focus on the story instead of the gadgets and gizmos, as kids can get overwhelmed.
  • Don't allow TVs or other screens in the bedroom.
  • Never allow violent material on the TV
  • Don't allow viewing at least 2 hours before bedtime as it can be too stimulating.

Some studies have shown a link between how much a child watches TV and the rate of obesity.

  • Limit snacking while viewing, and if a snack is given, make it a healthy choice.
  • Don't forget the value of getting outside and playing!

Another problem with all the media in our lives is that we sometimes are too distracted by our own devices that we are not interacting fully with our children.

  • Limit devices when with children.
  • During meal times turn off devices, and converse and interact with children.

Related Articles

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The Social Life of Toddlers

Spring Birthday Party Ideas for Toddlers

What TV Programs are Suitable for Children?

How to Say "No!" to Your Adorable Toddler


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