How Much TV Is Okay For Young Children?

Lots of Screens In Children’s Lives

Screens here, screens there, screens, screens everywhere — in our pockets, on our phones, in our cars, and in our homes.

It can be hard to tear children away from the TV.
It can be hard to tear children away from the TV.

It’s no wonder National Screen-Free Week was created!

And it’s not just mobile devices, computers, and smartphones — TV screens are everywhere.  You see them in the pediatrician’s  waiting room, restaurants, convenience stores, banks, and car repair shops.    Even movie theater lobbies have TVs running previews of movies!

Preschool age children spend between 2 and 4 1/2 hours using some sort of screen each day. However, according to the “Zero to Eight:  Children’s Media Use in America” study (published by Common Sense Media’s Program for the Study of Children and Media), 74% of young children’s screen time is television.  Although the use of apps and video games is on the rise, for preschool children, TV is still the number one screen of choice.

Research on Children and TV:  Good, Bad or Mixed?

A few studies find some benefits for children older than 3 watching carefully selected, age-appropriate educational content, particularly while interacting with a caring adult, which is great.  But reality check:   the parent-child cuddle isn’t really the typical TV-watching experience for most young children.

In reality, most children watch fast-paced shows with lots of aggressive behaviors and conflicts.  The level of violence seen in many cartoons is often higher than the level of violence during prime time TV.  And shows are filled with commercial messages  that lead children to want (and ask parents to buy) food that is often high in sugar, fat, and salt,  toys, clothing and other products.  Most adults are not watching with their children, but are taking advantage of TV time to get things done, or just take a minute for themselves.    Studies show that parents talk less to children when watching TV together than when doing other activities with their children.

Extensive screen time is linked to a host of problems including obesity, sleep disturbances, aggressive behaviors, problems with self-regulation, problem-solving, attention, learning, and social skills.

As children spend more and more time with screens, they spend less and less time with all those other activities that we know children need for healthy social, emotional, intellectual, and physical development.

What Children Need For Healthy Development

While TV is SO easy for adults and often SO appealing to children, it lacks a key ingredient for healthy development in young children:  real interactions with real people and the real world.  While watching television is entertaining, it is passive. Children learn and grow by doing!  They need to explore, build, create, move, dance, sing, and play.  Ordinary experiences like talking together, giggling, figuring things out, holding hands, and playing are important elements for children’s positive development. These everyday experiences help children develop language,  self-control, critical thinking,  empathy, and imagination.

While children certainly can learn from watching TV, there is no substitute for reading, tossing a ball, or just cuddling with family, friends, and others who care about them. This is sometimes easier said than done. Watching television is enticing and can easily become the go-to diversion.

Health experts recommend limiting young children’s overall screen time to 2 hours or less each day.   Limiting the time children spend viewing TV and other screens can be challenging, but the benefits for young children are worth the effort. Even small changes can make a difference.

How To Limit TV Time

Think About and Plan Family Screen Time

  • Consider your TV viewing.  How much do you watch when your child is present?  Children often hear and see the TV even when it seems  like they aren’t paying attention.
  • Figure out how much TV time your child REALLY has throughout the day.  You may be surprised when you add it up.
  • Decide how much daily TV viewing is okay for your child.  Plan how and when your child can watch.  Young children do well with consistency.

Tips To Make It Easier

  • Tell your child about the new TV viewing plan. There may be a period of adjustment. Use music, books, blocks, quick walks, and extra attention to help your child learn the new routine.
  • Set a timer to mark the beginning and end of planned TV time. A 5-minute warning can help children transition.
  • Keep the television off during mealtimes.
  • Create “Busy Baskets” with items like stickers, markers and paper, a special toy, or books. Bring out a Busy Basket ONLY when you need a few minutes – like making dinner or getting dressed.  Put them away between uses to keep them special.

Even in our high-tech world, low-tech toys and activities, and personal relationships are still the best building blocks for a child’s bright future.

Click here for a printable page with Screen Time Tips.

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