How to reduce screen time for toddlers

How much screen time should a toddler have?

Parents of toddlers and young children who are constantly throwing tantrums to watch TV and play games on the mobile and iPad often ask me that question at my Parenting Workshops.

Their toddlers are usually spending several hours every day on e-devices – for one reason or another. And they are hoping for an answer that will allow them to continue with that practice.

Unfortunately however, I am unable to give them the answer they hope for because the AAP are clear in their recommendations and say that toddlers should have no more than 1 hour of supervised screen time in a day.

What are the AAP Screen Time Guidelines?

The 2018 AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) screen time guidelines – recommend that children below the age of 18 months (one and half year) should have absolutely no screen time.

Toddlers between 2 -5 years of age can have a maximum of 1 hour of screen time and this time must be spent watching high quality programs with an adult (preferably a parent) who can talk about what the device is showing the toddler.

As is evident from the above recommendations – unlimited, unregulated screen time is definitely not recommended.

How much screen time is best for toddlers?

If you ask me – as a Parenting Consultant – I would say that toddlers don’t need screen time at all.

But in the digital world that we live in there are parents who want their toddlers to use devices. They advocate the use of screen time for educational purposes. They prefer to use devices to teach their toddlers nursery rhymes, interactive games, alphabets, shapes, numbers, and stories. They feel that the digital content available for children under the age of 4 years is quite informative and attractive and can be used to ease the burden of teaching children these.

For parents who want to use devices – I would recommend prudent and judicious use of the TV, mobile and other devices for no more than one hour per day. Only when that hour is spent watching carefully selected, high quality, age appropriate content – that has educational value. And only when that content can be watched with a parent (or another responsible adult) who can discuss what is being watched with the toddler.

Unfortunately however, the above scenario although ideal remains aspirational in most households and is almost never practiced.

Most parents use the TV and other devices as baby sitters when they have excess office work to finish at home or they need to take a client call or cook or do other household chores. Gadgets are an easy distraction that can keep children as quiet as sleeping babies and out of trouble. When devices are used like this the viewing or use continues for well beyond the recommended one hour and the content viewed is consumed unsupervised.

Because devices stimulate the reward center of the brain – with excessive watching – children easily get addicted to devices and this leads to them spending more and more time on the device/TV.

Like any other addicting substance when the TV is switched off or the device is removed – toddlers experience withdrawal symptoms that cause them to throw tantrums. And because parents cannot endure tantrums – they allow the toddler to watch some more TV – further fueling the addiction.

When things get out of hand parents begin to question the use of the devices and their own parenting style.
Where did I go wrong?
How can I reduce screen time for my toddler?
Do I need screen time for my child at all and how to make it effective?

Fortunately, reducing screen time in children does not have to be a difficult task because eventually screen time is not what toddlers really want. Screens are forced upon toddlers by busy parents who want some free time to do their work.

reduce toddler screen time with 20 Expert tips

Reduce toddler screen time with 20 Expert tips

How to Reduce Screen Time for Toddlers

One of the important points to keep in mind is that toddlers watch TV, mobile, iPad, because parents don’t have the time to play with them.
They insist on using devices because they see their parents watching them. When they see their parents or other older siblings totally engrossed in the devices – it makes them curious – they want to know what is happening there.
And once they begin using the device they get addicted to it because of the way the images stimulate the brain centers.

If you look carefully – you will find that toddlers insist on having devices only when devices are available and everyone else seems to be using them. They also insist on using devices when they are confined to a spot and expected to sit still. And they insist on devices when no one else is engaging with them in a playful manner. Otherwise toddlers are happy to engage themselves in other activities.

To reduce your toddler’s screen time follow these tips –

  1. Discipline yourself before you discipline your child

    Children learn by imitation. If you are constantly on your device – if you are addicted to your device – you cannot expect your toddler to stay away from devices and TV. Even if you work from home – have a designated space in the house where you leave your device and a defined time during which you use your device for work related messages or mails
    Also read Authoritative Parenting Made Easy With Examples

  2. Hire a helper

    It is very difficult to manage work, housework and a toddler is for any parent. Hire a household help who will do the time consuming household chores that do not require your inputs. Streamline the work and prioritise such that you are not doing things that can be done by just anyone. As a parent your main focus should be spending time with your child. Delegate all other tasks. If you must spend time working from home – employ someone who can do some activities with your child while you are busy. Specify what should be done and how before you begin working.

  3. Disconnect the cable TV

    Children watch TV only when it is available. Disconnect it. You may have to listen to a lot of whining for the first one week – but very soon you will find that your child has found ways to entertain her/himself. The easiest way to make your child creative is – to allow her/him to get bored.

  4. Have games handy

    Many times children forget what games they have and what they can do when they are free – and since the TV is right there in front of them – they start watching TV. Keep all the games organized in a cupboard so that the pieces don’t get misplaced. It is a good idea to make an activity jar and fill it with slips with the names of all the games available. Bring in some suspense and excitement by letting your toddler pick a chit and decide what she/he is going to play that day.

  5. Play songs or stories on audio

    Music is calming and soothing. It also elevates the mood and makes children less cranky. Also music prompts children to move and dance which makes them even happier even if they are restricted to a small room.

  6. Use screen time apps on the phone and sleep time on your TV

    When a device doesn’t work – there is no other way out. Your child will have to find a way to entertain her/himself. Make turning off automatic so that exercising the will power required to turn off something addicting is not required all the time. Let the TV or app switch itself off in 30 minutes.

  7. Make a schedule

    A schedule keep things peppy and answers the question “What should I do now?” easily. There should be breakfast time, chore time, reading time, puzzle time, singing time, dancing time etc. on the schedule. There will be times when you are very busy and your toddler says “Mamma / Papa – what should I do now” if you have made a schedule for the week in advance – you can just check it and answer – “Read a book” or “Finish your jigsaw puzzle”. If you haven’t made a schedule – you are most likely to say “ OK – go watch TV”. Have a defined number of minutes set aside in the day for TV/device use. Choose what you want to watch with your child and limit yourself to watching only that and nothing else. Never use the TV/device as a baby sitter or a bribe for keeping quiet or a reward for good behaviour.

  8. Plan a short outing every day

    Children need to go out – even if it is for a short while. If they are cooped up in the house all day – they will sure begin to throw a tantrum to use a device or watch TV. Plan a short visit to the park one day. Take your child to the library one day, plan a day to stare at the stars one day and go to the grocery store to buy something specific with money from the piggy bank one day. Create excitement about the outing by writing it in the planner and talking about it all day long.

  9. Invest in books art supplies clay and jigsaw puzzles

    Stop buying more and more video games. If you buy them you will surely play with them. Instead buy things that will give your toddler the opportunity to use her/his hands, feet and creativity.

  10. Schedule story time

    Books are a child’s best friends. Read out a story to your child every day so that your child becomes curious about books. Once you have finished reading the story – give your child the chance to “read” the story out to you. Don’t worry that your child can’t read or hasn’t understood the story. Just listen with full concentration. That will build her/his interest in books and stories.
    Also read 10 Games To Improve Your Child’s Reading Skills

  11. Plan to ensure that your child gets tired of TV

    Download your toddler’s favorite shows and play the same over and over instead of watching directly on TV a new show every day. The same shows can make children bored of the cartoon

  12. Put children to bed early

    Having childfree device time is possible if you can put your toddler to bed early. Ensure that you plan the day such that your child is asleep by 8 PM. Then you can watch TV after that. Keep the TV in the bedroom and turn it on only after your child goes to sleep every day.

  13. No TV at home

    The best way to limit device time is – to not have a device in the house at all. While it may be impossible to get rid of mobiles and iPads – you can definitely get rid of the TV. Not having a TV has found to be the best solution by all parents who have been struggling to reduce screen time for their toddlers. If that is not possible – limit TV viewing to 2 hours on the weekends.

  14. Co watching is the way forward

    If you feel that your toddler must watch certain content on TV – make sure you co-watch the content with her/him. While you co-watch explain and discuss what is happening. Talk about whether you think what is happening is good or bad. Talk about what each person is thinking or feeling. So if a cartoon character has a bad fall or is hit by someone explain why hitting is not good and how the person being hit feels bad and may get hurt badly. This builds empathy and social skills instead of eliminating them. Consider the use of TV or any other device – as your toddler’s way of exploring the outside world. Just like you would follow your toddler around if she/he were exploring the garden – make sure you follow her/him around during virtual explorations. Make the device watching time – a time of learning and bonding.

  15. Embrace active watching

    The TV and other devices have the potential to turn toddlers into couch potatoes. Do not allow that to happen. Create from what you consume. If you are watching an activity – get up and do it. If there is a dance happening – copy the dance. Sing along with all the songs. Talk about the people behind the scenes and how they create the content. If you know someone among family or friends who do something connected to what you are watching – bring them into the conversation. Let your toddler realize that a lot of hard work and imagination goes into creating the content you are passively watching.

  16. Use a timer

    Because devices are addicting – it is often difficult to switch them off. Set a timer before you start watching TV or using the device and give your child the responsibility of running to the device and turning it off as soon as the timer beeps. Turn it into a game and build resolve, determination and discipline as added benefits.

  17. Don’t use screen as pacifier

    When your child throws a tantrum – understand that it is the time for you to bring in your own calming presence and mature mind to calm your child’s turmoil. Never make the mistake of adding to the turmoil by turning on a device to pacify your child. The excessive sensory stimulation offered by the device only adds to your child’s restlessness and agitation. Give your child a hug and a kiss ad speak in a calm soothing voice. Understand that your child is craving connection with you. Use your body and your mind to soothe your child’s panic of lost connection. Connecting with a device at this point can only make things worse.
    Also read – 8 Reactions To Avoid When Your Toddler Is Throwing A Tantrum

  18. Don’t use screen to feed

    One of the biggest parenting mistakes is using a device to distract the child to ensure that the child ‘finishes’ her/his meal. Distract feeding serves no useful purpose and instead damages the body and the brain. Your child must learn to recognize that she/he is hungry and must eat only to satisfy the hunger. No child must ever eat to satisfy the parents sense of purpose or ego. Serve meals at regular times. Serve small quantities of food that the child can enjoy. And eat with your child while sharing a lively conversation.
    Also read What To Do If Your Child Is A Slow Eater?

  19. Actively involve them in Chores

    Todllers want to be involved in activities that make them feel like they are part of the family. They want to feel needed, appreciated and capable. They want to contribute and feel purposeful. Involve them in whatever you are doing. They love chores. It builds their cognitive and motor skills and raises their self-esteem. If you are cooking, take them to the kitchen with you, allow them to dust mop and swab. If you are busy working on a laptop – give them sand to play with or water to pour. This will keep them busy for a long time.
    Also read – 25 Chores For Your 4 Year Old Toddler : Learning Is Fun

  20. Let children spend more time in the play area than at home

    Children want to play. If they have the chance to play – they will not ask for devices. Take your child to the park. Be there for as long as possible. Teach your child how to get along with other children so that playing becomes more fun. A child who can make friends will never be lonely and need to be entertained by a device

Benefits of limiting screen time

  1. Limiting screen time forces your toddler to use her/his imagination to come up with games to play and things to do.
  2. With limited screen time your toddler is not entertained all the time. When your toddler is bored she/he is compelled to think creatively
  3. Thinking up new games to play – thinking up new ways to play old games – all build your toddler’s Intelligence Quotient
  4. Playing with others improves social skills and builds Emotional Quotient.
  5. When there are no devices – children run around and play and that keeps them agile, fit and happy. Playing is the best protection from childhood obesity.
  6. When children use devices less – they have sound and adequate sleep. Sleeping well makes children intelligent, healthy, rapid learners.
  7. When toddlers don’t have devices – they interact with others, develop their skills by doing things and that builds their self-esteem
  8. Playing with real children in the real world with real toys requires resilience and determination and device free children hone these qualities. Children who use devices typically get used to instant gratification which creates obstacles in their path to success.
  9. Imagining creating and determinedly persisting until they achieve what they want – builds your toddlers focus and concentration

What are the adverse effects of too much screen time on toddlers and kids?

  1. Too much screen time affects the toddler brain
  2. Excess device usage can lead to myopia or short sight in the child
  3. Devices are one of the main reason for obesity, lack of activity and unhealthy eating habits in children
  4. Exposure to blue device light can reduce the sleep cycle in toddler which affects the physical and mental growth of children
  5. At a toddler age if children are active in the virtual world and not in the real physical world can adversely affect their social skills as they grow up
  6. Gadget addiction is real and its adverse effects are innumerable.
  7. Instant gratification is another trap of excess device exposure. It can lead to depression in children in the long run
  8. When children use devices consistently, they lose their ability to focus and concentrate

Also read Do Eyes Get Spoiled By Using Mobiles And Watching TV?

You can eliminate Screen time completely if you can put in the time and effort that is needed to allow you child to explore, discover and interact. Make the time to allow your child to grow her/his body the natural way – by playing, by falling, by feeling happy and by sometimes getting upset. Get rid of that addicting device. Usher in happiness.

Featured image credit Photo by Patricia Prudente on Unsplash

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