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Screen Time Guidelines for Children 5 and Under

Today’s parents can often find themselves wondering how much screen time is too much. The ever-changing landscape of digital media can make it difficult for us to keep up with how much is too much and which type(s) of devices and content should our children be exposed to. Childhood is changing, especially when it comes to media exposure. Many of today’s parents watched TV and played video games as children, but they were not exposed to the internet, social media, tablets, and other handheld devices kids have access to today. Below are some helpful guidelines for screen time for children under five.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends:

  • Children between 0-18 months should only use screen media for video chatting.
  • Children between 18-24 months can be introduced to media and can watch up to one hour per day of high-quality programming with an adult caregiver. Examples of high-quality children’s programming are Sesame Street and Kids’ PBS. At these ages parents or adults, caregivers should help children understand what they are seeing on the screen.
  • Children between the ages of 2 and 5 can watch up to one hour per day of high-quality media with their parent or adult caregiver, adults watching media with children should not only help children understand what they are seeing but also help them relate what they are seeing to the world around them.

What happens if my child is exposed to too much media?

According to Madeline Johnson author of the article “Baby Screen Time: What You Need to Know”, young children exposed to too much media can face a number of challenges which include:

  • Speech delays Studies have shown children between the ages of 6 months to 2 years of age with access to handheld devices showed the more they used the handheld devices the more likely they were to have a speech delay.
  • Obesity Children of all ages are at an increased risk of obesity when they are exposed to too much screen time due to the sedentary nature of watching a screen. Sometimes unhealthy and over snacking can also go hand in hand with screen time.
  • Other developmental delays Studies have shown too much TV time can affect children’s social skills, communication, thinking and attention span.
  • Sleep problems Too much screen time for young children can be overstimulating, parents will want to avoid exposure to screen time one hour before bedtime as this can prevent young children from falling asleep and getting enough sleep.

In my experience working with children, too much screen time can lead to an increase in irritability and a general disconnect between the child and those around him or her. Parents and their children will benefit from being consistent with their limits on screen time.

In your absence, it is important to prepare babysitters and other caregivers to maintain the consistency of your family’s screen time limits.  Clearly community with babysitters or caregivers that you want to remain consistent on how much and what type of media your child is allowed to access, even when you are not present.

Below are three ways you can encourage and prepare your babysitter or caregiver to follow your screen time guidelines:

  1. Set expectations from the very beginning with babysitters and caregivers.  Be specific about your 1) what types of devices you allow your child to use (i.e. iPad, computer, TV, video games etc.), 2) what types of shows and/or games you allow your child to watch and play, 3) the start and end times your child is allowed to be on screens, and 4) time limits for how long they are allowed to stay on these devices.
  2. Leave a written list of media or screen time rules for your babysitter or caregiver.  List other activities your child enjoys such as favorite toys, games or books.
  3. Be specific regarding your preferences for your babysitter’s media usage while he or she is at your home. For example, explicitly communicate the expectation that he or she will only use their phone only when absolutely necessary when your child is awake.  

When in doubt, less is more when it comes to screen time for children. Children benefit greatly from playing with toys, being outside, and interacting with other children and their caregivers. The social and emotional learning that comes with play time and face time interactions with others cannot be replaced with a screen.

A note about the author:

Tristan Ford-Hutchinson, MPS, LAPC, ATR-BC, CCLS is an art therapist and counselor at Peachtree Art Therapy and Counseling who specializes in working with children, young adults and families. Email Tristan Ford-Hutchinson or visit her website to learn more.

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