Prioritize Face Time Not Screen Time for Toddlers

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The mom quickly tosses in a load of laundry while preparing her toddler daughter’s breakfast. After feeding and cleaning up her toddler’s breakfast, the mom engages in a search for the toddler’s pacifier. All the while, the mom’s thinking about all of the chores that need to still be completed around the house. Once the pacifier is found, it is quickly cleaned and put in the toddler’s mouth while a DVD is popped in for the toddler to watch while mom completes a few chores.

There are a ton of chores to do around the house and never enough time for mothers. Often time can be saved by putting toddlers in front of the TV or other electronic devices. This way the toddler stays engaged and mom is able to complete her chores quicker. It sounds like a win-win situation. However, it has become apparent that screen time for toddlers can have a potentially negative impact on their development and has no known positive effects according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Not only is TV that is directed at toddlers having a negative impact on their development, but so does TV that is on in the background. When the TV is always on, it can lower the amount of time parents interact with their toddlers because they are watching the TV. The noise of the TV can also disrupt the toddlers’ focused attention from their play.

The disruptive role of TV can continue into toddlers’ bedrooms. Up to 30% of three year old toddlers have TVs in their bedrooms. Many parents will use these TVs as ways to help their toddlers fall asleep. Unfortunately, TV can have the opposite effect where toddlers’ sleep schedules can become more irregular and of poor quality. This can lead to poor behavior during the day, making parents job even harder.

Instead of having the TV on, it is better for toddlers to have unstructured play time where they can explore the world. This includes time to interact with adults, particularly when the toddler is under two years old. There is something about the face to face interaction where toddlers not only hear their parents but also can see their facial expressions. These interactions help toddlers develop better vocabularies and social skills.

While it may not be practical to ban TV viewing from a household, parents should sit down and discuss how much media a toddler should be exposed to. This includes direct exposure from child programs and background exposure from the parents own viewing. At all times, parents should weigh what content is appropriate for their child to be viewing.

While the research indicates potentially negative impacts of passive TV viewing, it remains to be seen what the impact is regarding toddler interactions with computers and videoconferencing programs like Skype. Until more is known, the best advice is to be conservative and minimize toddlers’ exposure.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in December 2013.

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