Is my toddler having too much screen time?


Most parents won’t say an outright no to letting the youngest member of the household get some television or smartphone time – it's often been viewed as a somewhat convenient tool when it comes to occupying a child's attention. However, an excess of screen-time is of particular concern when it comes to toddlers because there are a host of consequences that can affect both physical and mental development at such a young age.

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Photo: Active Health

What are the consequences?

• Getting less sleep

When toddlers spend more time in front of screens, they tend to sleep later at night which can lead to your child losing out on quality sleep, regardless of the number of naps taken. For every extra hour that your toddler spends on a device, he or she could be losing up to 15 minutes of sleep overall. Bear in mind that a healthy toddler should get up to 14 hours of sleep a day.

• Weight-control problems

Playing games or watching shows on screens is a highly sedentary activity, and long hours of these in early childhood can lead to weight issues as your toddler grows up. While we all love a chubby and squishy baby, childhood obesity is indeed a rising pandemic and isn’t something to be taken lightly.

• Difficulty in socialising

Children learn social behaviour and develop emotionally through play and interaction, much like how animals do in the wild. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that helps us navigate their way through social situations, such as reading non-verbal cues and interpreting others’ vocal tones and expressions. When toddlers spend more time on their screens than interacting with others in real life, the development of the frontal lobe is impeded. This can lead to young kids having difficulty in discerning the virtual world from the real world, and this makes them behave passively in real life as they do with their screens.

• Delay in picking up languages

There is a general misconception that we can teach our kids English or other mother tongue languages by letting them watch educational programmes. However, kids don’t actually learn effectively from virtual programmes until they’re at least 2.5 years of age. Furthermore, such programmes rarely encourage the kids to try speaking on their own. In fact, American research has found that every 30 minutes of extra screen time on a mobile device translates to a 50% higher risk of a child experiencing delayed speech.

• Hindered learning ability

The passive nature of consuming content from a screen makes it nearly impossible for toddlers to engage in any cognitive processing. Screens are also a very two-dimensional way of letting kids learn things. Remember those touch-and-feel books that you sometimes find in the children's section of the library? Toddlers need to exercise their five senses in order to truly learn about the environment around, either through touching different materials or smelling things or even tasting them – screens only engage the senses of sight and sound.

• Shift in mindset

For toddlers, growing up in the world where every prod gets an instantaneous reaction from the screen can end up distorting their world view as they grow older. Mobile games thrill kids because every time they touch the phone, it rewards them with an instantaneous response and a rush of pleasure via dopamine. Normalising instances such as this can lead to unhealthy expectations in terms of instant gratification and could affect how your toddler makes choices later on in life.

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In terms of guidelines, here is the general consensus:

  • If your child is below 18 months: Avoid screen time as far as possible. They’re too young to be addicted to digital devices and exposure to screens could negatively impact brain development.
  • If your child is between 18 to 24 months: Some exposure to screen time is okay but only do so with parental supervision.
  • If your child is between 2 to 5 years old: Keep a curfew to screen time. An hour a day is the maximum you should allow.

Now, you may start wondering: should I even allow my toddler any screen time at all? While it’s ultimately a matter of personal choice, completely banning your beloved child from the screen isn’t 100% necessary. There are certain instances when screen time isn’t a bad thing, but it’s crucial to be able to clearly distinguish the fine line that exists between what's considered acceptable and unacceptable.

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When it's okay to have screen time

•Using screen-time interactively

There’s a term for this: joint media engagement. This occurs when parents actively involve themselves in the child’s screen-time, such as by explaining what’s on the screen or asking questions to drive further thinking. This will your help your little one process and think about what they’re seeing, thus adding another dimension to the otherwise 2D content they’re consuming.

• Video-calling relatives

Introducing your toddler to the concept of video calls might bewilder them at first, but it’s a step that can and should be taken. First of all, it helps your child build loving bonds with a relative or grandparent who lives far away. Video calls can also have the added advantage of allowing the young ones to pick up new words or practice their listening and interaction skills, as the person on the other end speaks directly to the child and attempts to establish a connection.

• Material that's actually educational

As kids are known for picking things up at the speed of light, it’s important to vet the quality of the kind of media they tend to consume. Open-ended apps are one form of educational material that experts support. Compared to linear apps where toddlers can only follow a set sequence of events, open-ended apps are great because they foster creativity and an adventurous spirit in kids, and even gives them the opportunity to role play in certain instances (which all kids love). Examples of such games are sandbox ones where kids are encouraged to design a world or landscape in their own image, or even those that involve rudimentary coding.

When it's not okay to have screen time

It's common for parents to resort to playing videos when our kids start getting impatient during mealtimes. While it can be difficult to refuse a child's earnest request for some cartoons-on-demand, the line needs to be drawn when it comes to using screen-time as a means of distraction.

There is nothing wrong with toddlers having some quiet time where stimulation and entertainment aren’t given to them! This is actually encouraged, as it provides them with the opportunity to figure out ways to amuse themselves or explore how things work on their own. Managing screen time can be done both at and outside of home, and there are numerous ways to do this.

At Home

• Impose time limits

Designating a fixed number of minutes or hours of screen time a day is the most fundamental method of ensuring your little one isn’t spending too much time glued to a screen. You can also set aside specific times of the day for them to watch the telly or play a game, such as when you’re showering and really can’t mind them for a few minutes. The time limits can be flexible depending on whether it’s a weekend or weekday, or on the weather too. If it’s a rainy weekday, stay in and catch a movie with your kid, or if it’s a sunny Sunday, bring the whole family out for a day at the beach where the only screen you’ll need is sunscreen.

• Create a healthy home environment

Switch off the TV when it isn’t the designated time, because having the television blaring in the background can be distracting to a toddler. Also, keep the bedroom a device-free zone as much as possible so the little ones don’t develop the bad habit of using devices in the bedroom.

• Lead by example

Toddlers are extremely observant and pick up behaviours from what they see. Those living in the household who interact with them most, be it yourself or a domestic helper, should avoid using mobile devices when it’s non-designated screen time for kids, because they’ll be sure to notice and ask questions. Putting our devices aside also allows us to devote our undivided attention to helping our kids explore and interact with the world around them.

• Establish opportunities for independent play

Allocate some time every day for your child to engage in some independent play – this will do much more for mental development than any educational programme. Independent play helps toddlers to learn to concentrate, focus and build confidence. It’s important to start when they're young and give them the freedom to explore and create their own fun – the best materials you can provide are open-ended or role-playing toys such as building blocks, dress-up materials and fake food.

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Photo: Active Health

Away From Home

• Pick a childcare centre that’s on the same page

Leaving your child at a day-care centre is a common thing in Singapore as both parents typically hold day jobs. Make sure you pick a credible one that is on the same wavelength as you when it comes to limiting screen time. After all, you’re paying these centres to look after your children well-being!

• Communicate with the parents of your kid’s friends

Play-dates are great events for toddlers and young children to experience, and they provide a great opportunity for kids to interact and have fun in an analogue environment. Just make sure the parents of your child’s playmates are aware of the screen time limits imposed, so that you can help each other keep track of such matters.

• Always have physical entertainment on standby

Having an interesting storybook or a favourite toy in your bag on the go will go a long way in keeping your child occupied while in the car or on public transport. Smartphones are not the only way to have fun; you'll be amazed how engrossed a child can get with a simple colouring book!

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Photo: Active Health

At such a young age, everything that your toddler interacts with can have an impact on their long-term development. This is why the relationship between toddlers and technology is one that must be governed with care and caution in order to maintain some measure of balance. Taking an extreme stance wouldn’t be very beneficial to both parties, so finding a happy middle ground is key. Furthermore, you don't have to go at it alone if you don't want to – expert help is only one click away - Active Health Labs.

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Topics: Screen Time, Rest Better