Report: Screen time for toddlers is fine, but parents have to work for it

Good news for parents, screen time for toddlers has been redeemed in-part by a new reports which asserts it has benefits. Bad news, if you aren’t using the screen with kids, you’re still missing the point.

Mark Lennihan/AP/FILE
In this April 10, 2008 file photo, muppet character Big Bird reads to Connor Scott and Tiffany Jiao during a taping of the children's program "Sesame Street" in New York.

Parents of toddlers might find hope in a new report that offers updated guidelines on how to make screen time beneficial for young kids. Or they might feel as if another task has been added to the list of ways to raise a wriggling toddler.

Since the American Academy of Pediatrics has advised against any screen time for kids under two, many parents feel a heavy weight in their chest as they turn on the TV, hand over their smartphone, or even watch as their young kids navigate to Netflix on the iPad and find latest episode of their favorite show.

Now the non-profit Zero to Three has published the guide “Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight” which supports much of the AAP recommendations, but with a slightly more nuanced approach, based on multiple research sources.

Before you let your kid binge-watch "Sesame Street" let’s be clear – parents are not off the hook. If anything, parents are more on the hook than ever according to the guidelines, which encourage parents to make screen time interactive – asking questions about what is on the screen, acting out scenes on the screen as they happen, and following up screen time with related real-life play activities, etc.

When it comes down to it, the more interactive a screen experience is for kids – meaning interacting with others in 3-D real life and not the screen – the better.

In addition to the extra work, parents still need to limit the amount of screen time, where screens are used, and what kinds of content is on the screen.

The report page on the organization’s web site includes multiple downloads, including key research findings, tips for parents, and 5 myths about young children and screen media.

It seems these guidelines might lift some of the strain for parents who need a break from brainstorming activities for a busy toddler.

Russell Saunders, a member of the AAP who wrote about Zero to Three's new findings for the Daily Beast, says the report offers a “common sense approach” and is worth parents’ consideration. 

“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,” he wrote

Saunders does say that he approaches any study citing research he didn’t review himself with a bit of skepticism. 

While I will never be considered to become a member of the AAP, (proven largely by my misconduct with choo-choo videos) I am a member of the toddler-parenting club, and I agree with his healthy skepticism, especially when Zero to Three’s report cites one study in particular that made headlines, despite lacking extensive background evidence. 

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in March asserted that caregivers who use cellphones in front of kids would end up having kids who act out to compete for their attention, driving them to give their kids negative attention in return. TIME titled its story about the research "Don’t Text While Parenting – It Will Make You Cranky." 

However, this heavily cited study included this research method – secretly watching 55 caregivers in fast-food restaurants with one or more kids during the hottest months of the year (July and August), which also happen to be when most kids are on summer vacation. Who’s to say those caregivers weren’t already cranky?

So, a member of the AAP and me, a parent who practices screen time within reason, agree that when it comes to studies and reports offering advice, parents should approach them with a lot of questions, and their own gut instincts.

In this case, I found some benefits to talking through all those PBS kids shows and some good ideas for how to turn a 2-D screen experience into something active and creative off-screen.

I am game for the interactive approach, and willing to put in the extra work, but I can’t speak for my 2- year-old when it comes to sharing, especially once he gets his hands on my phone, then squeals with delight as he runs into the other room.

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