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With so many shows targeted to very young children, it might not seem like a big deal to let your toddler watch an episode or two of a favorite cartoon. But your child is growing up in a media-saturated world, and now is the time to start teaching her healthy habits for managing screen use.
A little TV or other screen time is fine as long as she's watching age-appropriate, high-quality shows along with an adult. But too much or inappropriate TV can interfere with healthy mental and physical development and lead to long-lasting problems. Below are tips for managing your toddler's viewing time.
Set reasonable media limits for children
Limit TV or screen time. Most parents say their children watch two or more hours of TV a day, despite a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that kids ages 2 to 5 spend no more than an hour a day with screens of any kind – TV, tablet, phone, or computer. (The AAP recommends no screens at all for children younger than 18 months.)
To keep your child's brain from going on autopilot as he watches, break up viewing into 10- to 15-minute increments. Keep screens out of the bedroom and turned off during meals.
Set the rules right away. Setting up rules from day one makes it easier to keep viewing time under control as your child grows older. It's a lot easier to relax your standards later than to wean an 18-month-old from a habit of watching whenever he likes.
Make watching a privilege. Don't let screen time become an expectation. This is counterintuitive, but it's surprisingly effective. You may have a number in your head, but if your child knows what it is, he might view it as the amount he "should" be watching.
Make screens inconvenient. Consider keeping the TV and other screens in a small, out-of-the-way room in the house or in a cabinet that remains closed when it's off. Turn off the TV when no one is watching: Background shows are distracting, and they reduce interaction between parents and young children.
Choose high-quality shows for children
Stick with simple programming. Slow-paced programs give small children time to think and absorb. Choose straightforward, age-appropriate shows that emphasize interactivity. Ideal shows inspire your child to makes sounds, say words, sing, and dance.
Lots of random activity (like the kind in action/adventure cartoons) confuses children, and scary shows are too intense. And some research suggests that kids who watch violence on TV are more likely to display aggressive behavior.
Watch specific shows. Rather than allowing your child to watch whatever happens to be on, carefully select shows. Check reviews from trusted sources like Common Sense Media, and preview shows before watching with your toddler.
When the show is over, turn off the screen. A two-minute warning with a 10-second countdown that screen time is about to end will help your toddler transition to the next activity.
Be a guide and role model for children
Watch with your child. Try not to use videos or television as a babysitter. Research shows kids do better if an adult is around to reinforce learning. That aside, just being there says to your child, "What you do is important to me."
Help your child watch critically. Even young children can learn to watch without "tuning out." If you're watching television with commercials, talk about what's going on in the show and in the ads, and explain the difference between the two. Encourage your child to ask questions and relate what's happening in the show to her own life. If you're watching a video or recorded show, pause the show to discuss what's going on.
Connect the show to the real world. By joining your child during screen time, you can help her make connections between what she viewed and the real world around her. If you and your toddler have just finished watching a Sesame Street segment that introduces a number, talk about the number and find examples of it to show her. When you're setting the table, for example, you might say, "Hey, today's number was three, and there are three places to set!" Then read and discuss a book that explores numbers.
If your child loves a show about wildlife, you can go to the library together to choose books about animals. Or if characters in a favorite show bake a cake or make an art project, you and your child can try doing a similar activity.
Be a role model. Children are most affected by the example parents set, so don't channel surf or keep the TV on as background noise. If your child sees you eagerly sitting down every so often to watch a specific show and concentrate on what you're seeing, she'll recognize the potential for enjoyment that movies and other shows actually promise.
Make a family media plan. In addition to thinking about your child's time with screens, consider when and how other people in your household use screens. Talk with your partner about ground rules for TV and other screens, and commit to a plan. You can make a personalized plan with the AAP's free family media plan tool.
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