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Should your toddler have access to your digital devices?

October 20, 2014

You’ve probably heard your pediatrician offer this advice: no television for children under two years of age. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has discouraged the use of screens of any kind (television, video, tablets, iPad or iPhones, to name a few) for toddlers.

As a mother of a toddler and a preschooler, this brings up some guilt for me. I know that I (and probably a lot of other parents, too) fall short of meeting this standard. It feels nearly impossible to avoid screen time in a world that seems to revolve around screens- on our phones, on our computers, on our televisions. And in those moments when I really need my child to be occupied so I can have a few minutes to take a shower or get dinner on the table, unfortunately the television works, and sometimes I use it.

However, I also realize and appreciate the distinction between what is easy and what is good. I want to do the right things, the best things for my children, and there is some value in knowing the ideal even if you can’t quite attain it. I also realize that the Academy of Pediatrics has some good reasoning behind these recommendations.

  • Studies have found that watching television shows (even educational shows such as “Sesame Street") have either a negative impact or no impact on a young child’s language development
  • More time watching television means less time interacting with parents or siblings, and this interpersonal interaction is crucial to a child’s cognitive development
  • Children who watch TV spend less time reading or being read to, which leads to lower literacy readiness
  • Children under two years of age who watch more television have more language delays

Is there a difference between “active” screen time and “passive” screen time?

Pediatricians agree that toddlers shouldn’t spend a significant amount of time watching television, and there is evidence to support that this is not developmentally beneficial, even if the programming is educational. Children under the age of 18 to 24 months aren’t capable of processing the information they see on television shows- they learn better from live interactions with people.

However, there hasn’t been a whole lot of research on more active forms of learning in front of a screen. Watching television is a passive activity; it doesn’t require a child to participate. When a child plays an educational game on a tablet device where, for example, they are matching letters to sounds, it requires interaction from them. It is a more inclusive activity than idly watching whatever appears on the television screen. This more closely mimics the firsthand experience a child has when playing with real-life toys.

The question becomes, then, are digital devices a good way for toddlers to learn?

The short answer is that we don’t have concrete evidence to prove that yet, but conversations are beginning to take place among physicians and policymakers that may begin to differentiate the importance of “active” versus “passive” forms of digital experiences. In other words, in the future, we may be talking more about how our children are using these digital devices instead of whether they should be using them at all.

I don’t know about you, but that eases my guilt a little bit. I can ensure that my children are participating in quality digital learning experiences, but isolating them from all screens all the time doesn’t feel realistic in this increasingly digital world that we’re living in. It feels prudent to me to teach my children how to use the digital medium well and use it in a constructive way, rather than keeping it away from them at all costs (or feeling the guilt of failing to do so).