Baby TV: Pros and cons of screen time

Q: What do you think are some of the biggest pros and cons of media usage for kids?

A: There aren’t any pros to media for kids younger than 2. That doesn’t mean you’re ruining your baby’s brain if she watches an inning of baseball on TV with you. It’s just that babies have so much to learn about how the world works and about human interaction, and those things need to be learned from other people rather than from machines.

After age 2, the first questions to ask are: Is my kid getting lots of play time? Getting outdoors? Interacting with other kids? Sleeping and eating? Reading? Is my kid getting quality time with me, even if we’re just taking out the trash together? Is he getting a chance to grow bored and sort himself out? So first you make room for the things your kid truly needs in a day. After all that, there are only a few seconds left for media!

The biggest benefit of media, in my mind, is the ability to show your kids something cool about the world during their “why? why? why?” phase. Photographs of galaxies. Time-lapse videos of flowers unfurling.

Other than that, it’s easy to find a real-world activity that’s more fulfilling than screen time. A TV show that teaches vocabulary isn’t better than reading books with your kids. It’s just better than a TV show that doesn’t teach you vocabulary. A video game where you dance isn’t better than an impromptu dance party with your family in your living room. It’s just better than a video game where you sit there. A car ride with a movie playing isn’t better than a car ride where you’re singing songs, making up a story, or playing a game. It’s just better than a car ride without entertainment.

Q: Do you think there is an age that is appropriate to start exposing kids? How young is too young?

A: Kids are exposed to screens from birth. We’re addicted to screens, and our kids are fascinated by everything we do, so there you go. Pediatricians say no screen time for kids younger than 2, and many parents know that. But we do it anyway.

So the interesting question to me is, why? I see a few reasons.

One, we need a break! That might be because we haven’t created regular breaks in our day. Or we haven’t gotten in the habit of including our child in our own activities. For example, we might think we need to sit our toddler in front of a TV show so that we have time to get stuff done — say, fix a loose suitcase handle. Instead, we could show our toddler the difference between several screwdrivers, explain how the handle attaches to the suitcase, and let her “help” tighten the screws. That’s more interesting for everybody.

Two, we’re out of ideas for dealing with our child in a stressful moment. They’re throwing a tantrum, and the screen changes their mood in an instant. Or we’re frustrated that we can’t get them to hold still for a meal, and the screen renders them slack-jawed.

Three, we’re so infatuated by screens ourselves that we think, oh well, it must be fine for our kids.

It’s important to solve these underlying issues, but we don’t always instinctively know how. That’s why I put so many specific, practical how-to tips in my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.

Q: Any advice from personal experience with your kids or with close friends/family?

A: I’ll never forget this time we were babysitting my nephew, maybe 5 years old, and he wanted to watch cartoons. We turned on the TV, and it was like flipping a switch in him. He looked like a zombie. When we said something to him, he couldn’t hear us. It was frightening. So that experience is one reason I’m not in a rush to introduce my toddler to TV.

My advice, if you’re trying to reduce the media in your life? Don’t have it around.

For me, it’s like Cheez-Its from Costco: if I buy them, I’ll eat them. So I don’t buy them. If I open up my laptop when my toddler is around, it will suck me in. If I bring my smartphone with me everywhere, I will check it. So I try not to even start. I have set times, like early mornings or nap time, when I can go online. When another person is around, I remind myself that it’s more important to be truly present. I don’t always succeed. Thank goodness tomorrow is another day.

Q: How much media usage do you recommend from a professional standpoint?

A: Harmful effects start piling up when you hit two hours of screen time a day. Many studies show obesity risk, unfocused play, lack of reading time, shorter attention spans, disrupted sleep, interpersonal aggression. But that doesn’t mean that an hour and 59 minutes of screen time per day is great for your kid.

I was so interested to learn what experts in this field actually do in their own families. It’s a lot less. Some allow 20 minutes a day of screen time for their own kids. Or no screen time on weekdays and 30 minutes on weekends.

The amount is less important than setting your own limits, based on your values as a family, and choosing the content wisely.

There is one thing that reduces the negatives and boosts the positives of screen time. It’s making screen time social. You watch the show along with your kid, for example, and you talk about how the character felt when his friend stole his toy. Or there’s a zoo scene and you talk about the time your kids went to the zoo.

Think of screen time as something you do with your kids, rather than something you do to get a break from your kids. I can think of so many things I’d rather do with my daughter than watch a TV show! But ask me again when she’s old enough to play video games.

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

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