Health & Science

Experts Share Guidance on Screen Time for Babies and Toddlers

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As the global coronavirus pandemic wears on, parents of babies and toddlers are struggling to find ways to keep their little ones engaged while still staying on top of work, chores, and other ongoing responsibilities. Late last month, JAMA Pediatrics editor-in-chief Dimitri A. Christakis moderated a virtual workshop on the use of screens in early childhood in which a panel of experts on child development gave short talks on the subject and answered questions from parents. 

Around 500 parents tuned in for the workshop, and many of their questions revolved around the dos and don’ts of young kids and screen time. Pediatrician John S. Hutton explained the difficulty around making recommendations on the topic, since very little research has been done on the effectiveness of distance learning and screen time for very young kids. Among the most lenient recommendations allows small bits of screen time after a child reaches 18 months. 

Of course, quarantine has changed everything about the way we live, work, and parent, and many families don’t have a caregiver available to constantly entertain and engage the youngest members of the household. The general consensus among the panel of experts is that in times of need, babies and toddlers can engage with certain types of digital entertainment for short periods of time.

Psychologist Ellen Wartella emphasized the importance of being selective and thoughtful when choosing media for young kids. As Dr. Hutton explained to the viewers, babies develop their skills most effectively when engaging in “serve and return” behaviors with adults, in which the caregiver responds to the baby’s facial expressions and sounds with those of their own to mimic a conversation. Programming that can simulate that type of behavior can potentially be useful for educating very young children—though no replacement for the real thing.

Brandon T. McDaniel, researcher with the Parkview Mirro Center for Research & Innovation, spoke on the importance of modelling good tech behaviors. Creating tech-free zones or times, and making a conscious effort to turn away from the screen and make eye contact while interacting with little ones can foster responsible tech use as they get older. 

“Despite these unprecedented times, children’s needs haven’t changed,” said McDaniel during his talk at the workshop. Being sensitive to those needs and choosing media that sparks interest and engagement in your individual child is more effective than establishing a “one size fits all” guideline for tech use in early childhood. 

When deciding what level of tech use is right for your family, it might be helpful to keep in mind the following tips from the virtual workshop’s experts:

  1. Create a family media plan. And yes, you should even write it down! This plan will set your family’s parameters for tech use and make the rules clear for everybody. When can everyone use screens? In which rooms are devices allowed? Choose rules that make the most sense for your family.
  2. Compartmentalize: Working from home can easily make you feel like you’re always on the clock. As much as possible, designate certain set hours each day for work and other responsibilities in order to reduce the frequency that you’ll need to come up with activities for your youngest kids. For example, if you’re able to get most of those things done in the morning, the whole afternoon will be free for screen-free family time. 
  3. Less is more. If you find yourself needing to use screen time to occupy a baby or toddler, keep it short. Only one or two hours per day at the absolute most. Screens at this young age should be avoided whenever possible (yes—even in the background).

Parents of older kids aren’t being left out. Additional virtual workshops were held via Zoom concerning older kids and screen time. The Children and Screens During COVID-19 Virtual Workshop addressing kids in Kindergarten through 8th grade was held on Wednesday, May 6 at 12pm EDT and the Teens and Screens During COVID-19 Virtual Workshop was on Tuesday, May 12 at 12pm EDT.

Mckenna Saady is a staff writer and digital content lead for ParentsTogether. Before working for nonprofits such as the Human Rights Campaign and United Way, Mckenna spent nearly a decade as a child care provider and Pre-K teacher. Originally from Richmond, VA, she now lives in Philadelphia and writes poetry, fiction, and children’s literature in her spare time.