A Blog From Your Kaiser Permanente Physicians

Mother and baby with phone

Should Your Toddler Use Your Phone?

Your baby is fussing while you’re talking to your friend, so you hand them your phone and let them play “Baby Shark” on it. This works like a charm – both to distract them and give you some time to focus – but you feel a pang of mom-guilt. What’s the harm though, really?

Pediatricians recommend that babies under 18 months not be allowed to use any electronic devices, and that kids ages 2 to 5 have very little screen time.

But why worry about letting our little ones use screens? Are these guidelines missing the mark for overloaded parents who need a break sometimes?

We know that young children don’t learn well from screens – they need interaction from their caregivers to learn. Also, kids who spend more time on an electronic device are more likely to:

  • Be overweight.
  • Have disrupted sleep from exposure to content and blue light on devices at bedtime.
  • Have delayed or impaired language and social development.
  • Be exposed to risky health behaviors like smoking, drinking, eating disorders, and drug use.

To address these concerns, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following guidelines to help parents navigate the use of digital media (phone, apps, videos, television) by their families.

Children under 18 months shouldn’t use screens at all – other than video chatting with relatives. Why?

  • Children under age 2 are not yet able to learn from a screen. Instead, they learn by interacting with their caregivers – talking, singing, playing, and reading with them.
  • Even when video chatting, a child of this age may need their caregiver to interpret and explain what they’re seeing.

Children ages 18 to 24 months may be introduced to digital media if parents use it with their child. Letting children use media by themselves should be avoided.

For children ages 2 to 5, screen time should be limited to 1 hour a day or less.

  • Choose only high-quality educational apps and shows.
  • Avoid any violent content, as well as rapidly changing, distracting, or fast-paced programs (young children don’t understand them).

Being a parent can be incredibly hard! Some days you just need a few minutes of downtime – such as a chance to help an older child, get some chores done without interruption, or just take a quiet moment for yourself. Using a screen with care at these times may be a wise choice – and one made without that mom-guilt!

While screen use can give parents a much-needed break, remember that children benefit when parents watch with them. That’s because kids learn best when you explain and reteach what the child is watching.

Imagine the difference between a toddler using an app alone and using it with you. When using an app together, you can say something like: “Push the picture of a bird” “What does the birdie say?” “Yes! Tweet, tweet is what a bird says! You knew.” Then later when you go for a walk, you can point to a bird and connect the online learning with the outside world.

It’s hard to know how to guide young children through our digitally connected world. Some other tips that parents of toddlers can use to set limits on screen time include:

Don’t use screens near bedtime. For all of us – toddlers, teens, and their parents – it’s important to avoid screen use within 1 to 2 hours of bedtime, to allow for the best night’s sleep.

Avoid screens at mealtime. Meals should be times to connect, tell stories, and have fun together – not look at screens.

Save screen time for special times. Use screen time when you really need a break as a parent, or at times like airplane flights when your child needs the distraction. Remember that apps and shows are not as educational as when your child interacts with you.

Be a role model. More time on our phones means less time with our kids – and they learn best from us! Turn your phone on silent at meals, as well as when you’re playing or reading with them. If kids see us distracted by phones they feel ignored. Set up a favorites list on your phone (for people who you really need to reach you like the school office) and use “do not disturb” so you’re comfortable not checking it.

Avoid using devices to calm kids down. Using phones to distract kids may work in the short term but it doesn’t allow them to learn to self-regulate or self-soothe. Instead, guide them with deep breathing, hugs, and taking time to sit quietly. Distract them with games, books, and songs rather than screens. Young kids learn to play quietly and entertain themselves when given the chance. They don’t if they’re often given a screen instead.

Playing with, reading and singing to young children will always be a better way to help them learn. They’ll learn vocabulary, language and social skills better from people than from screens. Or as Dimitri A. Christakis author of the latest screen time guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics, says:

Children need “laps not apps.”

Find more resources for parents:

Common Sense Media
PBS Kids
Sesame Street

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