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Screen Time for Toddler

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: Hi, I have a one year old son. I was told that watching TV, and listening to radio more than 5 minutes will damage children's brain in their first 24 months. But I found Baby Einstein videos very interesting and learning for him. Can you please let me know if should I keep him away from TV and radio until 24 months or is it OK to see these programs once in a while, like 30 minutes a day? Thanks.

A: Interesting question! The current recommendation for no screen time (including television) for children under the age of 2 is zero (no screen time!) and no more than two hours daily for those older; in accordance with the guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). How far should we comply to these guidelines have been quite confusing for most parents.

The actual fact is that little is known about the consequences of long-term use of gadgets and devices. It really depends on how people are integrating these devices into their children's lives. But it sure is not that toxic for brain to turn them into idiots. Having said that, there are potential disadvantages and it is up to the parents to analyse what is good versus bad.

As parents, we need to distinguish screen time whether it is television screen, tablet, smartphone or e-reader. Content matters a lot whether is it an interactive game, an e-book, a Skype/Viber call with family or YouTube videos. Then context is also crucial – whether child is left alone or screen time is with a parent/guardian.

A few things should be noted about screen time. Passive screen time may not provide rich and beneficial learning experiences either on TV/tablet/smart phone. In fact, if TV is on while the child is playing could actually be a negative distraction. The duration of time that a child is allowed to watch TV could also make a difference in terms of parent-child bonding as it reduces bonding time. And if children are left with babysitters or nannies who are fond of screen time, this would adversely affect the interaction between child and physical world.

Today, thousands of apps, e-books and videos claim to have education value for children. However, little is known on its efficacy. Having said that, there are apps that have educational value but young children still learn better from real experiences where most of the senses are used rather than screen representations. Research has shown that when dealing with visual-spatial problems, for instance finding hidden objects or solving puzzles, toddlers (under around 30 months) perform much better when the problem is presented in real life rather than on screen.

I believe that some interactions with screens might actually be beneficial but parents must always be forewarned of the potential downsides. Parents themselves who spend too much screen time – apart from allowing children model their behaviour, may also tend to ignore their children when engrossed. This is a sure killer of screen time.

In your case, watching 30 mins of educational videos should have any adverse effects. Perhaps, after every 10 mins pause and get the child to look away. Don't worry – even if he overshoots his 30 min limit, no brain damage will happen! It is also best when parents are watching with child, as it could be use as an interesting way to bond. As parents, we always need to make a series of risk-benefit analyses. All the best!


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