screen time

While more evidence is needed on how screen time affects children’s development, screens are a part of our everyday life. Wherever you stand on the debate, it can help to bear in mind some simple screen time tips…

1. Getting the right content

Try to make sure the content is appropriate for your child’s age (AAP, 2016). Check independent review sites that list TV shows by viewer age and educational value.

You’ll also want to choose apps carefully. Some apps that were specifically designed for toddlers open up the opportunities for play and creativity rather than being a passive experience (Marsh et al, 2015).

Age recommendations provided by app developers or download sites (such as the App Store) are rarely validated. So instead try using independent review sites, such as Fundamentally Children for age-appropriate recommendations. You could also check the NSPCC’s guides to online safety for children.

It’s good to be mindful of having adult programmes like the news, soaps, music videos or your favourite chat show on rather than those for your child.

2. Know your limits

Remember the old adage about everything in moderation. Try as a family to set limits for how much screen time you’re comfortable with your child having and stick to it. Don’t forget to include your own screen use (including mobile phones) in the discussion as you will set an example to your children.

You’ll also want to keep an eye on the total amount of screen time – it can quickly add up without you realising. Especially if your toddler is watching TV for 30 minutes here and there, and using a tablet at other times during the day.

If you’re not sure whether your family is using screens appropriately or might want to cut down, you’re probably not alone in this. You could try asking yourself whether screen time in your household:

  • is controlled
  • interferes with what your family wants to do
  • affects with sleep
  • affects the control of snacking.

(RCPH, 2019)

3. Screens in the mix

Try to see screen time as just one activity out of lots of other fun options. Think of all the other fun you could both have – making a den out of sheets, playing inside boxes, baking together, trying craft activities or going on playdates.

Also, the general advice is for toddlers to be active for three hours a day. So try to make sure they’re getting plenty of exercise and play (NHS, 2017).

4. It’s how you use it

As well as the length of time, think about how using a screen fits into your child's life. You could use it during long car journeys, for example. We know this is easier said than done though. Especially if you have a fractious toddler shouting ‘tablet’ at the top of their voice.

Also, many experts say that watching passively isn’t the best thing for under twos (Bedford et al, 2016). Your involvement, at any age, is important (Marsh et al, 2015; AAP, 2016; Zack and Barr, 2016; BPS, 2017).

You could try asking them questions. For example, try asking about what happened in the programme, what their favourite part was and what the characters were wearing (Reid Chassiakos et al, 2016).

“I try to talk about what’s on screen as my daughter’s watching. We also sing and dance to YouTube videos as that’s fun to do together,” says mum Emily.

5. Avoid use at meals and bedtimes

Most experts agree that screen time should be avoided at meal times so your child can interact and learn good eating habits. Family mealtimes are a marker for wellbeing in children and young people (Public Health England, 2013).

Similarly, try to steer clear of screens close to bedtime (Foley et al, 2013; BPS, 2017; Cheung et al, 2017).

6. Leading by example

There is a link between how much TV you as a parent watch and how much your child watches (Carson and Janssen, 2012; Hesketh et al, 2012). So try to lead by example.

Switch off the TV if no-one is watching. Having it on in the background is distracting; it can stop you responding to your child and might mean you miss cues like when they’re tired or full (AAP, 2016).

Also try to limit your own use of phones and tablets. It’s so easy to check emails, or scroll through news, when you could be playing or communicating with your baby (Reid Chassiakos 2016)

“The big issue for me is how us parents change our habits. I say this looking at my phone while we watch Tinga Tinga on CBeebies!” says mum Emily.

7. What works for you

We all know there’s no substitute for little ones crawling, walking, climbing, exploring, interacting, playing, babbling and socialising. But, used sensibly and in moderation, screens can also have a useful place alongside this.

As with everything, it’s about finding the right balance and making it work for you and your family.

“I think as long as you have a good, healthy family life, you choose programmes or content carefully and you consume all things in moderation, it's not a problem and can actually be very helpful,” says NCT mum Rachel.

This page was last reviewed in February 2019.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.

We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Read more about the health impacts of screen timeonline safety guidancea good TV guide and a good app guide.

AAP. (2016) American Academy of Pediatrics announces new recommendations for children’s media use. Available from: https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Bedford R, Saez de Urabain IR, Cheung CH, Karmiloff-Smith A, Smith TJ. (2016) Toddlers' fine motor milestone achievement is associated with early touchscreen scrolling. Front Psychol. 7:1108. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4969291/ [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

BPS. (2017) Changing behavior, children, adolescents and screen use. Available from: https://www.bps.org.uk/sites/bps.org.uk/files/Policy/Policy%20-%20Files/Changing%20behaviour%20-%20children%2C%20adolescents%2C%20and%20screen%20use.pdf [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Carson V, Janssen I. (2012) Associations between factors within the home setting and screen time among children aged 0–5 years: a cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health 12:539. Available from: https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-12-539 [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Cheung, Celeste, Bedford R, Saez De Urabain, Irati R, Karmiloff Smith, Annette, Smith, Tim J. (2017) Available from: Daily touchscreen use in infants and toddlers is associated with reduced sleep and delayed sleep onset. Scientific Reports. 7: 46104. [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Foley L, Maddison R, Jiang Y, Marsh S, Olds T, Ridley K. (2013) Presleep activities and time of sleep onset in children. Pediatrics 131:2. Available from:  http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/131/2/276.short [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Hesketh K, Hinkley T, Campbell K. (2012) Children′s physical activity and screen time: qualitative comparison of views of parents of infants and preschool children. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 9:52. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3543294/#B18 [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Marsh J, Plowman L, Yamada-Rice D, Bishop JC, Lahmar J, Scott F, Davenport A, Davis S, French K, Piras M, Thornhill S, Robinson P, Winter P. (2015) Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-Schoolers’ Use of Apps: Final Project Report. Available from: www.techandplay.org. [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

NHS. (2017) Keeping kids active. Available from:  https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/keeping-kids-active/. [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Reid Chassiakos YL, Radesky J, Christakis D. (2016) Children and adolescents and digital media. Pediatrics. 138(5). pii: e20162593. Available from: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/5/e20162593?ijkey=9361f5c21a0703959fc1a78f090d347a5c630626&keytype2=tf_ipsecsha [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Public Health England (2013) How healthy behavior supports children’s wellbeing. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/232978/Smart_Restart_280813_web.pdf [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

Zack E, Barr R. (2016) The role of interactional quality in learning from touch screens during infancy: context matters. Front Psychol. 7:1264. Available from:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003922/ [Accessed: 24th January 2019]

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