If you landed here because you are interested in what the expert-recommended screen time is for two-year-olds and toddlers, I can link the 2020 American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommendations here. But I would like to caution you before you immediately accept that recommendation.
From my experience, there is rarely a clear-cut answer that is a perfect fit for everyone. This article is for early educators or parents of an infant, toddler, or two-year-old, that want to create a screen time plan that meets the needs and goals of families.
After exploring this topic with me, you should have the information you need to create a family screen time plan that:
- Is based on the real needs of a family
- Is based on the developmental needs of a child
- Makes you feel competent and confident as a parent or educator
Summary of AACAP Guidelines on Screen Time for Two-Year-Olds and Toddlers
I am placing this right here for our reference.
- No screen time for children under 18 months, with the exception of video calls
- Screen time only with a caregiver from ages 18 months to 2 years
- Only 1 hour of week day, 3 hours of weekend “non-educational” screen time for 2-5 year olds
To be fair, they do call these guidelines instead of formal recommendations. Let’s explore the topic a little more so you can make your own informed decision.
Why You Should Limit Screen Time for Toddlers
1. Screen Time is a Close-ended Activity
Television/video streaming is a passive activity that does not give children an opportunity to engage in any meaningful way. Gaming apps are close-ended activities that do not allow children to explore or use their imagination. This is the truth whether the screen time is “educational” or “non-educational.”
Children learn best through child-led, engaging, open-ended play. The best play experiences are sensory-stimulating and allow a child to use their full-body. Learn more about the stages of play theories.
While video and games may provide visual and auditory stimulation, it does not compare to experiences like running barefoot on the grass, sinking hands into scented play dough, or getting lost in their own imagination.
Close-ended activities are ones where the goal is to reach a final, correct solution. Shape sorters, puzzles, and many battery-operated educational toys are close-ended activities. They provide an opportunity to build cognitive skills and even fine-motor skills, but in a limited way. The goal of the toy or app is the same for every child, at every age or stage of development.
Open-ended activities meet the inherent, individual needs of a developing child. Outdoor learning activities, loose parts play, and sensory activities give children the opportunity to meet their own needs. Children can choose to explore and play in the way their bodies and brains need to at each level of development.
Instead of mastering the next level of a skill, apps encourage children to seek out gratification from a noise or a burst of animated confetti.
An Alternative Option
Honestly, the only apps I can think of that are open-ended are freestyle drawing apps. Comment below if you know of any other apps that are age-appropriate and open-ended. I will share them out in a newsletter.
2. Screen Time is Overstimulating for Toddlers
Screen time overstimulates the visual and auditory senses. The best way I have had this explained is that our brains are hardwired specifically for the pace of the real world. Real life moves much slower than it appears in movies or shows.
If you have ever watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and thought the show moved at a snail’s pace, well, it was designed that way. The show was created to move at the pace of the real world to make it appropriate for the young audience.
When children adjust to always being over-stimulated by technology, it is much harder for them to engage in play in the real world. And harder for them to focus later in school settings. The pace of their real lives feels slow and boring, leaving them seeking the artificial stimulation created by screen time.
An Alternative Option
Choose children’s shows that seem painstakingly slow to you. Shows with real people or nature are better than cartoon animation. Share your personal recommendations in the comments below please.
3. Screen Time is Passive, Lacks a Social Connection
Infants, toddlers, and two-year-olds learn through interaction with others. This is how they develop social skills, language, communication, and relationships. Screen time is passive. There is no serve and return of interaction. Animated characters are not modeling how to form words with their mouths or how to display real human facial expressions.
Young children depend on nurturing, responsive adult to learning how to regulate their emotions. They cannot get this passively from a cartoon character talking emotions.
An Alternative Option
As the AACAP recommended, young children should participate in screen time with a caregiver. Screen time becomes more engaging when an adult is creating conversations about what is happening on screen.
- Talk about the vocabulary the characters are using
- Talk about the emotions the characters might be feeling
- Share your observations about the show
- Ask your toddler open-ended questions about the show to help them make connections and build language skills. Access my free list of open-ended questions for toddlers below:
Reasons Why You Should Use Screen Time with Toddlers and Two-Year-Olds
1. Family Movie Nights
Creating cozy, meaningful family traditions is a powerful way to build connections in your family. Yes, you are participating in screen time, but instead of the movie being the focus, shift the focus on the rich sensory experience.
Lower the lighting, light candles, put on cozy pajamas, set out pillows and fuzzy blankets, prepare and appreciate a favorite snack, and talk about all these different parts of the evening. Talk about how the experience makes you feel and ask your child about what they are experiencing.
2. When You Need a Break or a Task Completed
Hey busy parent. I am assuming that sometimes you get overwhelmed. Handing your two-year-old a video on your phone might be your best (only) option for a moment of peace or to take a shower. That is fine. Just set a limit. “You can watch this video until I am out of the shower, then you will be all done.”
If you find yourself relying more and more on using screen time as a way for you to take a break, then do some self-reflection. It is absolutely okay every once in awhile. But if you find yourself struggling, take time to reflect on what changes you can make to be more engaged and present.
I will link my article on how to stop losing patience with your toddler, but I also recommend reaching out for professional help too if you are feeling overwhelmed. No shame in that.
3. Video Calls with Loved Ones
I am adding this in since the AACAP specifically commented on video calls in their recommendations. To me that seems a little silly because OF COURSE video calls are okay. Please let your child of any age participate in video calls with loved ones.
When I was a teacher, a dad in the military would participate in his daughter’s home visits and classroom arrivals/departures via video call on mom’s phone. No way in hell should he have had to miss those moments if he didn’t have to.
Thanks AACAP for permission, but I think we all knew that video calls are a indescribably powerful opportunity for families. Take advantage of the technological gift.
How to Limit Screen Time for Two-Year-Olds and Toddlers
The quick and easy answer is to set boundaries and stick with them. But nothing is ever that simple with toddlers, right? If your child is already used to having lots of screen time, you have a couple options that you can consider before implementing a screen time plan.
1. Do a Full Tech Detox
Do a full technology detox for the family. Hide away all tablets. If seeing you with your phone reminds your toddler of screen time, then limit using it around them. After two weeks, introduce screen time back only within the boundaries you chose for the family screen time plan. Let your toddler know the boundaries and remind them of these rules often.
2. Slowly Reduce Screen Time
Slowly reduce screen time over a couple weeks until it is only being used within the boundaries you decided on. Each week, choose a different time of the day to eliminate screen time. This is a better approach if screen time is currently unlimited or being used throughout the day.
Re-evaluate your scree time plan at each developmental stage. Older children can begin to use technology to research and to create. Make sure you are always seeking the right balance between creation and consumption.
Tips to Make Limiting Screen Time Easier
- Give your child extra one-on-one interaction. Replacing screen time with something better and more meaningful (you, their favorite human) will ease the transition. If you are used to your toddler being distracted with a tablet while you complete household chores or having personal space, I recommend checking out my article on how you can spend more quality time with your toddler (without losing your patience).
- Make note of times, moods, transitions, events that seem to spark a battle with screen time. Is there something that happens that reminds your child of their tablet. How can you eliminate that?
- Focus on building play skills with your toddler. All children have to develop play skills (also known as approaches to learning). They have to practice skills such as staying engaged in play, exploring, and initiating play by themselves. If your toddler has spent a lot of time “being entertained” by technology, then they may need to catch up on play skills. Luckily, play is also instinctual so with a little extra support, they should catch up quickly. Learn more about stages of play.
If you’re really struggling with limiting screen time, check out #4 in the next section.
The 5 Screen Time Boundaries Infants and Toddlers Need
1. Never Just Prop Your Infant in Front of a Screen
There is no appropriate amount of passive screen time that is okay for infants or their development. If you are tempted to use screen time as a pacifier because you are feeling overwhelmed, that is understandable. Instead, place your infant somewhere safe like their crib, and step away to take some deep breaths. Ask for help if you’re needing it.
2. Never Let the Television Run in the Background
Never let the television be on all day in the background. Infants and toddlers are constantly absorbing what happens in their environments. Even when they are not watching the screen, the sounds and lights are having an impact on their play. Turning off the tv lets children fully engage with their play and fully access their own imagination.
3. Don’t Allow Unlimited Screen Time
Unlimited screen time is not okay. Because of the potential negative impacts of screen time, your family does need a screen time plan that can protect and promote your toddler’s development. I fully advocate for you creating a plan that is good for your family, but once the rules are established, commit to following them. It is easier to adjust a plan in the future than to start one from scratch once bad habits are formed.
4. Never Let Screen Time Become an Ongoing Battle
If you create a plan and after weeks are still struggling with your toddler, there may be a bigger issue. It is normal for your toddler to test the boundaries of your screen time plan, but a constant struggle could be a sign of a bigger issue. If you have not already, I recommend doing a full technology detox for your toddler.
5. Be a Role Model, Limit Your Own Screen Time
When children grow up watching all the adults in their lives stare at a screen or repeatedly check their phone, they learn that there is something fundamentally important about screens. Our personal technology obsessions probably do not align with our goals for ourselves or our children (guilty!). Do not let screen time be a “do as I say, not as I do” situation. Your screen time plan does not have to be the same as your child’s, but you should acknowledge your limits out loud and model following the plan.
Interested in learning more?
- Why & How You Should Quit Social Media, Youtube Video
- The Social Dilemma, official documentary website
- Your Undivided Attention, podcast
- How to Temporarily Disable Instagram
Final Thoughts on Screen Time for Two-Year-Olds and Toddlers
Ultimately, technology is part of our world. Ignoring it will either lead to our families consuming too much of it or not creating healthy boundaries.
There is the very real situation that computer literacy impacts success in school and future job opportunities. But for our youngest children, they are best set up for success by having as much chance to explore and play the way their brains were designed to.
Children also deserve engaged and nurturing adults that are able to disengage from technology and be a positive example.
We want children knowing they make an impact ON the world, not just be passive viewers of it.