How to Approach Your Toddler Watching TV

How to Approach Your Toddler Watching TV April 16, 2023

Many of the parents who I work with ask me whether it’s appropriate for them to allow their young children to watch TV or to go on an electronic device such as an iPad.  While searching for answers, I turned to The Child Mind Institute and will address their research in this article.

In a recent article published by The Child Mind Institute, writer Katherine Martinelli and clinical expert Dr. Matthew Cruger, PhD, address a topic that has troubled parents since the television became a fixture in every American household: What and how much should your toddler watch?

In a practical, even-handed way, the authors take a decidedly 21st century view of this parenting challenge. The begin by citing the American Academy of Pediatrics, who is “known to guilty parents everywhere for advising against any screen time.” But Martinelli and Cruger just as quickly acknowledge that we now live in a world in which television — and “screens” more broadly — are ubiquitous. The modern experience is one dominated by information technology and media.

We are surrounded by cell phones, computers, and TVs. And if any evidence of that fact is necessary, imagine a common scenario for moment: a young family is out and about, running errands in their vehicle. They stop for gas on their way home, and when pulling up to the pump, the children in the back could be confronted with multiple screens from the TVs that now commonly occupy that backside of parent’s headrest in the car, to the advertisements scrolling across the monitor that’s now a fixture as many gas pumps, to the TV likely inside the gas station itself. That’s to say nothing of the fact that every adult in the car has a screen all their own, stowed safely in their pocket.

The point is that avoiding or prohibiting screen time for your toddler is virtually impossible. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has come to recognize “that not all screen time is created equal.” Indeed, “some TV shows, games and apps are more developmentally appropriate for preschool children than others. And just as important as the choice of media itself is the role you play in how your child consumes it.”

It’s true that many of the negative outcomes associated with screen time have remained the same. Whether the content itself is too advance or altogether inappropriate, the media is so fast-faced and frenetic that it overwhelms toddlers, or inherently sedentary nature of passive viewing stunts development, there are still pitfalls and problems. Dr. Cruger unpacks this issue, writing “using apps and TV viewing tend to be sedentary activities, so it’s not an opportunity for [toddlers] to use their bodies to explore and to integrate thinking as much as something that involves some physical movement.”

However, more and more, parents and pediatric experts are identifying ways that toddlers can experience with the screens around them in productive, interactive ways. This shifting view has been informed by research and real-world observation, and one particular trend has gained a foothold in the way we think about screen time: quoting Dr. Sarah Lytle, the article explains that “the new buzz term is joint media engagement, which means you’re going to interact with your child around screens just like you would interact with your child around any kind of media, whether it’s a book, or art material.”

In short, parents can adapt their philosophies and rules to suit a world that’s changing as fast as their children are growing. Lytle goes on to say that “if you need to take a shower and the kid is going to watch TV for 20 minutes, totally fine. There’s no evidence that’s going to in any way harm their development. But I think if you want that to be an educational experience, understand that you need to be with the child, watching the screen with them and asking those kinds of deeper scaffolding questions and really engaging in that media experience with the child.”

In my opinion, this sort of holistic view of the challenges of screen time is reassuring, and offers a road map to bring parents together with their toddler around an experience that can be fun, educational, and entertaining. Moderation and parent-child engagement are key concepts to inform parents about the appropriate type and amount of time young children can spend on screen time without negative effects.

Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.

I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry 

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