Tuned In

Yes, Your Toddler Can Watch TV: The New Rules for Screen Time

Researchers say it’s OK to break with hardliners—provided you’re interacting right along with your kids. A look at new guidelines that defy pediatricians’ recommendations.

12.26.14 10:55 AM ET

When my oldest child was a toddler, I treated illuminated screens like plutonium. During my training as a pediatrician, I had received the message loud and clear that the recommended amount of television for children under 2 was nil. It was not only the advice that I gave parents about their kids, it was the standard I held for my own. “Screen time” of any sort was strictly verboten.

A few years later, my oldest son can efficiently navigate Netflix to his favored shows from Bobs Burgers and gets annoyed when I try to do it for him. And that’s to say nothing of his facility with an iPad, a technology that’s been around for less time than he has and has already become ubiquitous.

Despite the differences in experience between sitting and watching a glowing screen and swiping your finger across one, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lumps it all together in its recommendation that screen time be avoided entirely for toddlers. This remains the conventional wisdom for doctors, parents, and advice columnists alike—don’t let small children use your smartphone or tablet. But some people are beginning to question it.

According to research sponsored by the nonprofit Zero to Three, even children under 3 can use touch-screen technologies in a developmentally appropriate way. The organization has issued a set of guidelines for parents about how to use iPads and similar devices interactively, treating the stories and pictures in a manner similar to how moms and dads might read a book to a small child. While many of its recommendations comport with the AAP’s (e.g. avoid background TV in play areas, keep televisions and other screen media out of bedrooms, no use before bedtime, etc.), it breaks with the academy (of which I am a member) in approaching screen time as something that can be part of a toddler’s learning experience at all.

As with any report that makes reference to research I can’t review directly, I approach these new guidelines with a degree of skepticism. Just because there’s a study to support something doesn’t necessarily make it true. However, the recommendations tell parents that they should be interacting closely with their small children as they use iPads, taking what they’re seeing on screen and making it a shared, three-dimensional experience. It treats touchscreens and TV programs as just one more way to introduce toddlers to animals, colors, and other concepts. And, of course, it recommends keeping screen time limited, so as not to supplant other, real-world play and exploration.

Frankly, it’s hard to argue with this common-sense approach. Using screen time as a tool for fostering the close relationship between parent and child we’d otherwise want, rather than something to be avoided outright, is an alternative approach that may be worth considering. While the educational claims attached to videos that purported to boost infants’ IQs merely by watching them were found to be baseless, using age-appropriate programs and apps as a springboard for teaching kids about what they’ve seen on the screen now has some support.

That’s all well and good for content that parents can discern is educational or otherwise salubrious. But what about stuff that has no obvious redeeming qualities to it? I can justify letting my son watch Wild Kratts by focusing on the information he’s getting about the natural world dressed up in animated superhero guise. What about when he really wants to watch Ninjago, a program I can’t pretend to like, where any semblance of educational content is thin on the ground?

In her article for The Atlantic last year exploring the burgeoning phenomenon of apps for children and related media, Hanna Rosin offered reassurance to harried parents who sometimes allow their kids to watch shows where there was nary a discussion of vowels or a lesson on foreign cultures to be seen. Not only does she describe the evidence that even the most zoned-out-seeming kid is actually thinking while watching television, she goes on to discount the idea that apps primarily meant to be fun are inferior to those that are demonstrably instructive.

“There are legitimate broader questions about how American children spend their time,” she writes, “but all you can do is keep them in mind as you decide what rules to set down for your own child. The statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics assumes a zero-sum game: An hour spent watching TV is an hour not spent with a parent. But parents know this is not how life works. There are enough hours in a day to go to school, play a game, and spend time with a parent, and generally these are different hours.”

I can tell myself that my kid is learning valuable stuff about physics when he gets to play Bad Piggies on his granddad’s iPad, and maybe he is. But it could be that he just likes watching green pigs tumble off cliffs for a while, and perhaps that’s OK all on its own.

Like almost all parents, I’ve found even my most stringent edicts softening and slackening with time and the steady growth of our family. I didn’t shoo my daughter out of the room while her big brother was watching TV even before she turned 2. In the days to come my husband, who has many fond childhood memories of watching various Christmas specials growing up and who has always been a lot less uptight about the whole screen time thing than me, will want to watch them with our kids, too. And we’ll doubtless plunk our infant twins on the couch alongside their older siblings and not worry too much about it for an hour or so.

As with so many things, keeping screen time in moderate amounts seems key. I can’t see myself adopting some of the more laissez-faire attitudes some parents take in Rosin’s article. Our kids don’t get screen time during the week, and we tailor what they see to what seems appropriate. But we’ve given ourselves license to deviate from the AAP’s line a little bit, and there’s at least some emerging evidence that telling parents who come to me for advice that it’s OK for them to do likewise.