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Screen Time Recommendations for Infants and Toddlers

If there’s a buzzword out there that rings in every parent’s ears nowadays it’s “screen time.” You’ve more than likely heard your child’s pediatrician tells you that your children should spend no more than two hours per day in front of a screen, and your toddlers under 18 months of age should avoid screens altogether. A few months ago, Dr. Paxton wrote a blog article highlighting

 how best to introduce and set limits and rules regarding screen use in the family. With my blog posts this month, I aim to shed light on the reasons why it’s important to limit screen time for children, starting with toddlers and babies.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently changed its stance on-screen time in toddlers under 2 years old. Prior to the fall of 2016, the recommendation was absolutely no screen time for any toddler or baby under 2. The guideline has recently changed to avoiding screen time for children younger than 18 months, other than video chatting, and that for children older than 18 months, the focus should be on limited exposure to high-quality educational programming and interactive games.

Screen exposure before age 18 months can lead to sensory over-stimulation and ultimately impair the development of focus and attention. Infants and toddlers develop best when they are allowed to explore their environment and interact with objects in 3 dimensions and other humans. The background noise of the news on the television, though a human voice, is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction with another person where the baby can read facial cues and begin to understand the back and forth flow of conversation. Prolonged screen exposure at a young age can have long-lasting negative effects on a child’s verbal skill development and short term memory. Prior to 18 months of age, a baby’s brain just isn’t equipped to understand the inputs from the 2-dimensional media source and translate that to their 3-dimensional experience. After about 15 to 18 months of age, toddlers begin to understand the information presented in this way but understand best when that information is again presented in an interactive way with a parent or caregiver. Thus, sitting your 18-month-old in front of a program such as Sesame Street and leaving them be the entire time will not be as beneficial as if you were to sit with them and reteach the content that is presented on the screen.

An interesting caveat to screen time in the under the 18-month group, as alluded to above, is video chatting. Given that families are now living farther and farther apart, being able to use video chat to catch up with grandparents has become more and more common and somewhat of a necessity. Whether you live two towns away or two continents away, video chatting is a great way to communicate with loved ones, even for your baby. Some studies have found that babies, even as young as 3 months, can differentiate between a video chat with a family member and watching something passively on TV. This is likely due to the nature of video chatting, where there is more of an interactive component compared to the passivity of watching TV.

While prolonged screen exposure at a young age when the brain is still developing can have long-lasting negative effects, screens are becoming more and more ubiquitous in our society. Though it may sound great to ban all screens from ours and our young children’s daily use, it’s just not practical. Going forward, I would encourage you to continue to monitor the screen use in your young children, avoiding most screens before 18 months of age, and then focusing on high quality, educational programming once screens become a part of your child’s life. Remember, you, as the parent, get to control what media your children are exposed to and for how long.

Haley Pledger, PA
Women’s Care
Matthew Walton, DO
Austin Bills, DO
Family Medicine
Aaron Fausett, PA
Family Medicine
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