What are good "screentime" guidelines for my toddler?
February 22, 2014 4:28 PM   Subscribe

My toddler son is finally of an age where the iPad and youtube are beginning to be a big draw. This is great, but I'd like to have some good guidelines from the start that allow him some screentime but prevent it from taking over too much of his life. I'm looking for a sense of what others have found works and doesn't work for them.

About a month ago, my son (who just turned 16 months old) all of a sudden "figured out" the iPad; he navigates from app to app and can use about a dozen different apps. He also loves it when we play music on youtube for him (current obsession: this cover of "Africa" which I picked up from Metafilter). Great - more things for him to do!

Problem is, now we're trying to figure out what kinds of guidelines for limiting screen time make sense and are workable. We don't have an "in principle" objection to spending time on the iPad (or, to a lesser extent, watching youtube). We make sure to pick good apps and only videos we think will be "good" for him, and figure if it's engaging and non-passive, it's not a bad thing in itself (e.g., usually when watching music videos we'll "play" music along with them). We don't have a TV.

So, fine. Not worried about content per se. However, we still don't want screen time to take up too much of his time; there are so many other things a toddler needs to be doing. But just the vague guideline of "not too much" isn't very useful; we are most successful if we have something more concrete to stick to (e.g., "screens only in the evening" or "only half an hour a day" or something). Problem with the former rule is that it's nice to be able to take an iPad with us when we go to restaurants, which we do frequently, and the problem with the latter is that keeping track of how much time it's been is a pain in the ass and I know us well enough to know we won't keep up with it unless there are no other alternatives.

Also, more generally, I find myself a bit at sea when thinking about what amounts and types of screen time would be good, and how that could and should change as the kid gets older.

So... mainly what I'm looking for is a sense of what other people have done, and what you have found works for you or doesn't. Specifically:

What kind of limits (if any) have you set for screen time for your kids? I'm most interested in toddler age but I also kind of want a sense of how this will change with age so any ages are good. Bonus if the limits are easy for everyone to track and actually seem to work. I'd also be interested in hearing what didn't work for you.

NB: I really don't want this to turn into a discussion of whether we should be letting him play on the iPad at all. I think it's fine in small amounts and engaging apps and am just interested in people's experience successfully setting reasonable limits.
posted by forza to Human Relations (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Grandmother of screensavvy younguns here.

If it were me I would limit it to times when you really need him occupied and sitting still. Restaurants, and sitting in boring waiting rooms, stuff like that.

I have seen my own grandkids come over here and immediately want on my computer or want my daughter's smart phone, etc. instead of want to interact with us. I have no problem with them having screen time but in my view it's more a case of training them as to when it's appropriate and when it isn't. They are getting better at that now.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:53 PM on February 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

My toddler started our iPad at about the same age. I don't have any strict rule about it, but I prefer he not have much screen time, so I used to try to keep it under 15 min per session and 2 or less sessions a day, unless something like a restaurant meal or what remains of my sanity is at stake. He was really into it for maybe 4-6 months and I had to keep an eye on the iPad (not everyday usage, but he loved it when he could get his hands on it) and I'm not sure when he got over it, but he's now 2 1/2 and he's meh about it. It's still great if we want to sleep for 15 more minutes.

Basically, I tried to let him use it as just another toy and not worry too much about it, but I do keep tabs on it. I think he's great with shapes from all of the toddler video games btw, and he used my NPR app to find me some cool new music;)
posted by cestmoi15 at 4:54 PM on February 22, 2014

Our son started at about 2 with our smart phones for a few minutes at a time (usually 5-10 when he was really small), with us playing along with him by talking about what he was doing and having him stop and think about what he was doing next instead of mindlessly tapping away at stuff. Zoodles was a life saver in boring waiting situations! The only problem was that he expected it in certain situations (like one restaurant in particular), so we try to mix it up a bit. Sometimes getting to play, sometimes talking to us, drawing on a placemat, etc.

We still try to limit to about 15 minutes or less at a time still and have now started to ask our son (now 5) to earn his time for taking care of certain responsibilities like putting his school bag away when we get home, helping to clear his place at dinner, etc. We also found that setting a timer with an alarm was really helpful to signal when it was time to be finished. He can't argue with an inanimate object like he sometimes does with us.
posted by goggie at 5:11 PM on February 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suggest not having a firm rule so that you can use it as a treat on airplanes or when you need to shower and the like.
posted by k8t at 5:28 PM on February 22, 2014

We've limited it with my two toddler kids to "almost none at all when alone" and only in really limited amounts of screen time when together with them. Together we'll look at interesting videos (space, animals, airplanes, people in other countries, etc...) and a Gangnam Style / What's the Fox Say? dance party from time to time.

The way they act when screen time is over makes me believe it is VERY engaging but not always in a good way.

We've always made sure to have many other things they can engage with (pens, paper, stickers, crayons, chalkboard, toys, etc....) but have not found much value in "screen time when all by themselves"

That said, when we needed a serious break, or during some times of troublesome breastfeeding we played a few age appropriate DVDs for the older one.

My kids are 5 1/2 and 3.

EVERY once and a while is someone is home sick from school and the parent still has to work from home (phone calls, etc..) we'l set them up with the iPad or a DVD but again those are very rare.

I'm not one that believes the looking at a screen for a short amount of time is going to cause harm, but just haven't see pluses to it. I do put stock in the studies and experts that say limiting screen time only seems to have positives.

I look at a screen 8+ hours a day for work and expect that my kids will probably as well. I'm happy to give them a limited screen childhood as much as I can.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 5:43 PM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I no longer limit my daughter's screen time (she's eleven now), but when I did, I figured that the restrictions were for normal home use only. If we were in the car for six hours, or sitting in a restaurant, or whatever, all bets were off, and she was allowed to tappy clicky all she wanted to. It seemed to work well--unlimited time was novel enough that it was an adequate distraction when we needed it for a long haul, plus it spared me playing endless I Spy games.

To be honest, I sort of feel that looking at iThing and computer screens is a lesser evil than looking at (most) television--my daughter loved a lot of games that were at least semi-educational, which felt better to me than the bulk of what's on television.
posted by MeghanC at 5:48 PM on February 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Save it for when you really need it so that it doesn't lose its appeal when you are out of other options. And don't use it in the car because your kid will get used to having it in the car and also won't learn about the world outside the window. And don't let it become something that allows you to be lazy or uncreative in how you spend time with him.
posted by Dansaman at 5:50 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

A thing I found useful was setting the timer on the device to go off for when I wanted him to be done. Letting the timer be the "bad guy" instead of me headed off a lot of tantrums.
posted by chiababe at 6:02 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Two boys, 5 and 3. Movies (or tv shows) are a weekend thing only. They get a movie after school on Friday, and more through the weekend depending on our energy levels and other plans.

Other screens - the kindles and the leap pad - are for potty time only. But you have to set a timer, or they'll abuse the privilege in a hurry.

And long car/train trips.
posted by colin_l at 6:08 PM on February 22, 2014

Can I recommend the Little eLit site as a resource? They recommend good apps and serve as a clearinghouse for research and thoughtful reasoning about using new media with children. Library-focused, but plenty there for parents too.
posted by missrachael at 6:20 PM on February 22, 2014

When mine were toddlers I whipped out the digital candy when I needed a sanity break, no hard and fast times. My partner isn't into computery things so when with her they got nothing. I'm much more open to it. At one point (probably when the eldest was about 4) I put timers on the computer on their accounts (1/2 hr per day), but that didn't last long. Some days they didn't use the 1/2 hour, other days they (and I) wanted more. When they started school we cut out all TV, computer and iThings on weekdays. We had a coupon system where good performance at school got them a certain number of coupons, redeemable for screen time, on the weekend. That worked pretty well for a couple of years for the older one. Had to stop it when the younger one started school because she's made for the school system and would have ended up with seventy bazillion coupons.

These days (6 and 8) they play to their hearts content on weekend mornings until we get up. After that I kick them off to do other things. They both have lots of sports classes and we do family stuff. For us sticking to the routine is important for my eldest because otherwise he would watch minecraft videos and/or play minecraft all day. If I don't have a hard line he will whine incessantly about being turfed off. My youngest is much better at self regulating screen time. I could probably just leave her alone and she'd be totally reasonable. The eldest would turn into gibbering zombie pigman for sure.

TL/DR flexible when they are little, only weekends when they hit school, each kid is different.
posted by Cuke at 6:48 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

The resident 2 1/2 year old around here gets a shortish show at home each night so I can make him food unencumbered, and on Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday (my days off) he gets some ipad time in his couch-fort every morning for about an hour before we go do things. We let him self dictate with the ipad at first, and he used a bit more ipad than he does now…he actually gets kind of bored with it in lieu of real world playin (this does not extend to movies however…if left to his devices he'd watch Toys 3 over and over and over again until his eyeballs fell out).

Also, lots of ipad in restaurants, and on certain car trips that are longer than our average. They're great for that; and they're usually a nice enough treat if you limit their use during the week that they're angels in such situations.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:54 PM on February 22, 2014

I would not put a device in my kid's hands on the potty.
posted by k8t at 8:00 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

3 year old in this house. The only time we've used it out of the house was when we were in a doctor's office and needed crack to keep the broken-collarboned-child still. In the car, we used it once during a long car trip and it made him sick, so no more of that. I really hate seeing people out in the world being more engaged with a screen, so I try to maintain that expectation for him (and myself, but with less success.)

At home, he gets one "thing" (show or game or whatever) in the morning and one after dinner. For free form stuff like games we set a timer. He sometimes gets an extra if he can ask politely and if there are extenuating circumstances like illness. Screaming about it means no shows that day, and we have had several no-screen-weeks after ridiculous tantrums (really his only major tantrums have been over screen time). This is way more screen time than I would prefer but it's how it's shaken out in our house.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:19 PM on February 22, 2014

I'm not a parent, but my friend's son is exactly the same age as yours, and she has just been telling me about this.

Apparently, her paediatrician said that it is recommended that children have no screen time before the age of two. After the age of two, he specifically said not to use iPads at restaurants, where children need to learn table manners, socialization, etc. On the potty is a no-no too (sets them up for bad habits later in life).

Hey, don't shoot the messenger! ;)
posted by Salamander at 9:08 PM on February 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm really finding it useful to hear everyone's approaches - so thanks! Please keep them coming!

One question regarding the recommendations to not have screen time at all before age two: does anyone know why it should be absolutely zero? I completely understand why screen time should be quite limited -- that's why I'm asking this question -- but all of the arguments I've heard for none at all are along the lines of "there are a lot of other things a toddler could be doing that are more active or social."

As far as I can tell that's a good argument for limiting it but not making it zero: a toddler also spends many minutes of every day doing things that are not ideal ways to spend one's time developmentally speaking (trying to get into the shower with mommy, standing in lines, having nappies changed, and so forth). Compared to that I can't see how how spending 10-20 minutes a day (say) playing with an app can have such a detrimental effect. I see my son with an app and he is using his brain, exploring things, listening (actively) to music, learning new words...

So maybe I'm missing something. Is the idea that any time with a screen is worse than any time in the real world for some reason? Or is this a set of guidelines like "don't ever drink during pregnancy ever ever" where they deliberately make the rule super strict because they don't trust people to be able to self-moderate?

(Again, sorry, I'm not intending to start a debate about this - I really am interested in mostly what people have found works for them. But several people have now said that it should be no screen time at all and if there's a good reason for that (beyond "the AAP says so") I would like to know. I haven't found anything explaining the reasoning at the links provided.)
posted by forza at 9:23 PM on February 22, 2014

Response by poster: You know what? Never mind; my last question was a digression. If you know the answer (or an answer) I am interested in hearing about it over MeMail. I am also looking up the scientific literature on this myself.

Otherwise, please continue just sharing your stories! I did not mean to derail my own thread.
posted by forza at 9:54 PM on February 22, 2014

Why don't you use this app to set limits you can use. A bonus is that from an early age, your child knows that this program limits how much time to use.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:10 PM on February 22, 2014

Ahahahahaah. We are the worst. Our kid goes from none to four straight hours on a crazy day depending. We have friends who are much stricter and we are definitely the outlier, but I promise you that slip ups will not damage your child. Right now, she has the phone after dinner or when we need her to be quiet or she's sick or I am. Our kid sleeps about 9-10 hours and is crazy active. We don't use it as a reward, more like a toy, and we watch with her sometimes. We also have a lot of apps we play with her or that she likes. Conmonsensemedia.org is my goto place for reviews.

A big deal for us is to discuss what she's watching and make it active. Yesterday she took her playdough and rolled it out to a circle and jumped on it as a "muddy puddle" and told a made up story about peppa pig from her current obsession. She also read a stack of books and colored and ran around outside.

There are apps that limit videos in youtube so your kid can only see a prescreened set. I've also set my phone to airplane mode and limited it to videos already loaded, a mix of youtube rips of kids' songs and cute shorts and videos we've made of daily life.

It's balance. If you're using videos to avoid interacting or your kid gets crazy-obsessed (half hour of tears over elmo), cut the videos for a week. Use them when you need some spare time and control the sources. Our rule is if you make a fuss about losing the phone, then no phone for a day.

Oh and check for missed calls. Our kid just swipes decline repeatedly.
posted by viggorlijah at 10:44 PM on February 22, 2014

You may find kids differ significantly with regard to screen time. For our daughter (2 1/2), it's really just another toy, and we're lucky (heh) if it entertains her for twenty minutes. Basically only the Wiggles do that and literally nothing on ipad will entertain her that much, it's ten minutes absolute max. She occassionally youtubes on our phones for nursery rhymes she can sing along to, again, it's the kind of thing that happens early in the morning when she's crawled into our beds so not very long.

Our friend's toddler around the same age, however, he could go hours, and it's really something he begs for, screams to put away etc etc. So I think there's some temperament involved.

One question regarding the recommendations to not have screen time at all before age two: does anyone know why it should be absolutely zero?

Yes, and it's utter horseshit. The way that the precious few studies on screen time have been done, they assume that time spent with screen is time that would otherwise be spent in active, 1-1 play with a parent/s. The reasoning then goes, "well, we know that active play with parents promotes X, Y, Z things, and there should be a certain amount of active play. Screen time does not promote these things, or at least not the same rates, therefore, screen time = bad."

Now, far be it from me to say how other people parent, but I can abso-fucking-lutely tell you that a) most of the time my daughter spends with a screen is definitely not displacing time when I would be sitting with her and playing with her 1-1. She is getting screen time when I am trying to shit, trying to eat, trying to clean etc etc. and b) we often do puzzles and reading type apps on the ipad together (as I say, it's only ten minutes so no big deal).

If you read it up, there is in fact very very little evidence that screen time is bad in younger kids that goes beyond this "displacement" effect - and no evidence at all for regarding the "right" or "wrong" amount of screen time.
posted by smoke at 11:33 PM on February 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh and while I'm still up on this stratospheric horse, I would say more broadly, there's an awful lot of stuff out there about what's good for the child; it never dwells on what cost it takes from the parents. That might sound callous and selfish at first, but when you are up close and personal with post natal depression and the like, that calculus gets a lot sharper.

A lot of people, books, and cultures work hard to make parents, especially new ones, feel as guilty as possible - don't buy into the parental guilt complex if possible. It's a tough time with young ones, you do what you can, and don't worry about the rest. Your grandparents turned out all right, and they were fed all kinds of chemicals, no doubt spanked and thrashed regularly, and left to wither in the most hostile learning environments. Anything you do will be so much better than prior generations.
posted by smoke at 11:41 PM on February 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

The simplest and best advice we got was to think of the ipad or TV as a lava lamp. It's a bunch of bright colors that is attractive but utterly meaningless to the toddler under a certain age. It's not the worst thing to let your kid watch a lava lamp while you're taking a shower, just don't let it become their primary activity or pretend it's educational.
posted by benzenedream at 12:29 AM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

My understanding is that the recommendation for zero screen time before 24 months has nothing to do with screen time 'displacing' other activities. It is about the extreme plasticity of the human brain at that age, and the effect that looking at rapidly-moving, brightly-lit, flickering screens has on neural pathways.

There is lots of solid research out there about this, if you google around.
posted by Salamander at 5:28 AM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I take all aap recommendations with a huge grain of salt. I don't think they have a great internal process for weighing risks and benefits, and possibly evaluating the quality of research. Eg, they used to say "no peanuts until 3!" But now have done a complete reversal because new evidence suggests that earlier introduction to peanuts actually prevents allergies. So, listen your parental intuition, advice of other actual parents you know, and your pediatrician - aap is no bible.
posted by yarly at 6:55 AM on February 23, 2014

FYI here's the AAP report. Key para: " media have potentially negative effects and no known positive effects for children younger than 2 years"

Here's a piece by a journalist who has written a book about screen time breaking down some of the assumptions behind the research.

Here's a very recent meta-review of screen time research - (spoiler: households with the most screen time are also households with the lowest income, education level, general health etc etc - all things that can lead to less optimal outcomes for kids).

Here's an op-ed from the baby einstein founder defending her series against the 2007 washington study that formed the backbone of the AAP's recommendation (I'm not sure I would put a tonne of stock in this, personally, but it does highlight some potential issues with the study).
posted by smoke at 1:37 PM on February 23, 2014

Our 5 year old started enjoying apps and things at about the same age as your kid.

The most useful guideline we've used (and continue to use) is that she absolutely must ask permission for use. It allows us to more actively control what, when and how the devices are used. Wasn't a big deal when she was 15 months old, but now that she is 5, it's very useful that it is a non negotiable understood notion that this machine belongs to the adults, and is very much a privilege to have access to it.

Good luck!
posted by waterisfinite at 1:47 PM on February 23, 2014

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