Scrolling and checking social media and news feeds are addictive behaviours that affect brain chemicals. A toddler loves to have an effect on the world – to make something else appear by swiping, for example, is a thrill, especially when the app or game is designed to keep babies and toddlers interested, and quiet while you drive home or do a chore or have a minute’s peace. The phone or tablet is a portal to books, cartoons, songs, contact with relatives . . . There’s no in-built ‘that’s enough’ instinct. It doesn’t turn itself off (as long as it’s charged) and the material on it – at least in terms of one person’s ability to find and watch or consume or play it – is limitless.
Recommended screen times below cover the daily combined use of all screens: live or streamed TV, movies, hand-held games, apps, and any use of computers, tablets and phones. All screen time is not equal: child development experts all furiously agree that quality beats worrying about quantity. In other words an hour of good-quality TV for a preschooler is infinitely better than a half-hour of a violent game. Family or friends screening a movie or TV show should always choose one rated G for the youngest person who is there – not be guided by the oldest or most persuasive kid in the room.
Some apps and games are useless in terms of learning or development, or even psychologically harmful – there are apps for little girls to pretend they’re getting cosmetic surgery. Electronic games that have positive role models for both girls and boys, and promote thinking or might encourage a ‘real world’ adaption, but these are aimed at older kids and are not for babies or toddlers.
Screen time before the age of 2 is associated with a very much higher risk of a delay in speech development and less ability in reading. It is also believed to affect learning and development of communication, attention abilities, and social skills later on. Many children are already starting kindergarten with below-average physical, communication and speech skills because much of their interaction is them being silent, using screens.
Unsupervised device use and social media are unsuitable and bad for toddlers.
Recommended daily maximum screen times
Under 18 months old: no screen time.
- 18 months to 2 years: occasional ‘together-use’ – with an adult – watching a TV show or using an app.
- 2 to 5 years: one hour maximum ‘together-use’ – with an adult.
- Older than 6 years: Parents should set family-rule limits. Experts generally say kids should have a maximum daily use of 2 hours and, where possible, days without screen use.
- No screens 2 hours before bedtime, as their light messes with the brain’s understanding of night and day. (For more on this see Chapter 20, Toddler Sleep.)
Looking for more? There’s much more information on good games and activities in the Babies & Toddlers book.