How to manage your toddler’s screen time

screen time for toddlers

by Stephanie Spencer |
Updated on

Kids are constantly surrounded by screens, there is no avoiding them! They are at home and in schools and nurseries, so children grow up with them as an everyday part of life. Ofcom estimates that in the UK the average 3-4-year-old spends 3 hours a day in front of a screen! But do you need to manage your toddler's screen time?

Screens have been our parenting saviour, and whether you're sticking a film on Netflix, a toddler TV show or they're playing a game on their tablet, they're a welcome distraction when you're trying to get anything done. Toddler screen time is also useful for learning and kids enjoy the interactive element. But of course, like with anything, balance is important.

The first years of your child's development are the most important and as their behaviours are learnt through observation of the world around them, this explains why as a parent your technology addiction may be leading your child down a technology dependent path.

We all know toddlers can be stubborn, especially if you try to take something away from them, so if you are struggling to get your children away from tablets, phones and TVs this article will explore some of the ways you can encourage your child to ditch the screen.

How does screen time affect toddlers?

Despite the many benefits of these inventions - indeed some apps and games can be very educational - excessive amounts of screen time can lead to a number of eye problems in children, such as near-sightedness and eye fatigue leading to eye discomfort, dimness of vision and headache. To avoid experiencing any permanent damage, children should refrain from spending lots of time behind a screen. Apple have now added new Vision Health features for children to their devices, including Screen Distance. This great new feature, which reminds young users about healthy viewing habits, is automatically turned on for children younger than 13 when they are set up in a Family Sharing group.

The National Childbirth Trustadds that increased screen time for toddlers can also be linked to higher rates of obesity and diabetes because it encourages a sedentary lifestyle. It is also suggested that screen time can affect toddler sleep with children who use screens taking longer to go to sleep and experiencing poorer quality sleep, which in turn can slow down development and cause attention problems.

How does screen time affect toddler behaviour and development?

With a generation of very tech savvy toddlers and super fast internet speeds, our tots are quicker than we are when it comes to navigating their way around a tablet or laptop. And while this will stand them in good stead when it comes to using technology in school, it's important we learn more about the impact that screentime can have on our little ones.

Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman states that, by the time they are seven years old, most children born today will have spent the equivalent of a full year glued to screens.

“By it’s very nature, the internet provokes what we call a ‘Butterfly mentality’; where the brain flits from thing to thing without having to focus for very long,” says Martina Barrett, Co-Founder of VAKS, the Hertfordshire-based Tuition company that prides itself on bringing educational support back to real people and real learning.

“When children are constantly on iPads and smartphones, it’s no surprise they find it increasingly difficult to sit in a classroom and concentrate for up to an hour at a time. We are finding that children become tired quicker, their engagement with printed texts is not as great and even their motor skills are suffering from the constant use of touch screens as opposed to toys and tools that require manual manipulation.”

What is FOBO?

Experts in both social psychology and technological development have spoken about the phenomenon of FOBO (Fear Of Being Offline - also known as FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out) and its direct correlation with anxiety symptoms; where sufferers are compelled to constantly check their devices in order to reassure themselves that they have not somehow missed out on something.

Martina adds: “The irony is that, due to online formats, children are technically reading more often these days - but it’s not Committed Reading, where they sit down and properly focus on a book. They’re skimming short blocks of text and most of their information is given in the form of videos, Vines and games.”

All down to dopamine?

According to research, our reduced attention spans could be due to the effects of dopamine released in our brains as we browse the internet.

Dopamine is the chemical responsible for transmitting signals in the brain and is activated when something good happens unexpectedly. Usually linked with rewards and addictive behaviour, browsing the internet often leads to a spike in our dopamine levels and spurs us on to seek another immediate high.

“Constant exposure to screens is not just affecting children’s ability to learn, it is affecting their ability to process information and apply it in a meaningful way,” says Martina. “Technology is definitely the forefront of the modern world but there are still many events that require young people to focus and work methodically – whether that’s in an exam, when writing a personal statement or setting up a science experiment.”

Devices are now an immediate source of entertainment for toddlers (and adults!) and children should learn that their iPad is no substitute for their brain. To prevent any of the above problems screen time should be limited, especially as part of their bedtime routine or after school.

screen time management
cute girl using digital tablet

Ways to find balance when it comes to screentime

Here are five tips to help manage your child’s technology use and stop the inevitable tears that come with denying a three-year-old a tablet or screen time.

1) Set screen time guidelines

It is highly recommended with young children that you provide clear guidelines and rules of when and how they are allowed to use technology, this saves any confusion or pushing of boundaries.

Furthermore, make sure it is clear to your child what repercussions they face if they ignore the guidelines, that way they are aware of what may happen should they not follow the technology rules and will understand the limits.

It is very important for your children to get a good night's sleep, even us grown ups know how being on our phones late at night can disrupt our sleep. That's why it's a good idea to ensure your little ones avoid screen time in the hours leading up to their bed time by swapping screens for books, board games, bathtime or an after dinner walk outside.

2) Keep technology out of reach

Of course, technology is a great medium for your child to learn and keeps your little one busy when required, such as on a flight, however too much tech time where it begins to act as an e-babysitter can be detrimental to your child’s health and development.

For example, the lack of social interaction and eye strain from staring at a screen are two risks caused by too much technology. This is why we suggest you remove the temptation of technology and keep electronics out of reach most of the day.

3) Utilise parental technology controls

Technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate and due to the risks of the web, it is recommended you set up parental technology controls on the devices your child uses to ensure online safety for your little one.

Also depending on your child’s age, ensure that you let your little one know that there are risks on the internet and make sure you know your child’s passwords and account names so you can monitor their online activity.

With increasing technology use, there are, thankfully, increasing parental controls to put limits on screen time and restrict access to content. Apple have many tools to help parents ensure their little ones are safe online. You can set up Family Sharing which provides more visibility and allows family sharing. Plus, Screen Time is a tool you can use to check usage for all family members, as well as set limits on apps and websites. Other tools they have include: Downtime, which sets a specific time limit, for example bed time, and it blocks notifications and apps at that time, Combined Limits, which sets a limit for a group of apps or websites. Additionally, to ensure safety as well, parents can use Communication Limits which allows them to choose who their child can talk to, and they can choose apps for their child, as well as the Made for Kids section on the App Store which is a space just for children and Apple check each App does what it says it does.

4) Encourage outdoor play

It is not healthy for a child to be trapped indoors all day glued to their gadgets, which is why you should actively encourage alternatives to technology such as outdoor play. Simple games such as hide and seek, hopscotch, riding a bike or flying a kite will help keep your kids busy and active without the need to reach for technology.

5) Set a good example

As previously mentioned children learn through observation, therefore inevitably they will learn and copy your behaviours as they spend the most time out of everyone with their parents.

From an early age, you should set a good example to your children, if they constantly see you addicted to technology with your phone out at the dinner table or with your laptop out before bed they will instinctively pick up on your behaviours which can start a path to technology dependency. Your child will not understand why it is one rule for you and one rule for them in terms of technology at such an early stage in their cognitive development.

How much screen time is appropriate for a toddler?

There are no official recommendations on how much screen time toddlers should have, and parents should use their judgement based on their own family rules and habits. However, Pampersadvise that from 18 months limited, and supervised, screen time is fine for children. They suggest that from age 2-4 screen time for toddlers should be kept to under 1 hour per day. However, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health advise screen time limits should be set around the individual needs of the child.

Can screen time be beneficial to toddlers?

Yes, it can! Like most things, limited amounts can be good for all of us, including children. There are so many apps for toddlers to practice maths, or writing, colouring, shape recognition, problem solving and lots more. Things like the Apple Pencil is also great for entertainment. Plus,, suggests screen time is beneficial because it strengthens social connections and improves hand eye coordination.

In the world we now live in screen time is unavoidable, and while it should be used with care, it does have benefits for all the family.

Stephanie Spencer is the Deputy Digital Editor at Mother&Baby and auntie to four aged 8 to 6 months old. With a particular interest in health, she loves discovering products that make parent’s lives easier.

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