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In most American households, screens now outnumber family members. Smartphones, tablets, laptops and televisions are part of everyday life for many families and children. With screen media playing a bigger role in our lives, how can parents know how much, and what kind of screen time, is healthy for their young children?
Recently, a team of University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living educators worked with Dr. Heather Kirkorian of the UW-Madison Human Development and Family Studies department to learn more about the ways that screen media affect toddlers.
Kirkorian notes that while limiting screen time for toddlers is important, families can have positive interactions around screens, too. “Young children need interactions with real people and 3D objects to learn language and meet other developmental milestones,” says Kirkorian, “However, parents do not need to completely avoid screen time. There are positive, intentional ways to interact with your toddler around screens.”
Kirkorian shared the following suggestions from the national group Zero to Three (http://www.zerotothree.org) on ways parents can positively incorporate screen time into their toddler’s life.
• Watch and play together. Toddlers learn from interacting with adults. Rather than handing your toddler the tablet or your smartphone, sit down with your child and talk about the game, ask questions about what you see on the screen, dance to a song together, and take turns.
• Connect to the real world. “Screens are just one piece of your child’s education,” explained Kirkorian, “Extend concepts that were introduced on a screen to everyday life. For instance, if you saw a short video about the zoo, take your child to the zoo or play zoo with her stuffed animals. Maybe your child traced the alphabet using a tablet; now point out letters on street signs or in books as well. This helps kids connect what they see on screens to their real life.”
• Use intentionally. Background television (TV that is on all day) is the most harmful type of screen time for children and should be avoided because it distracts kids from learning through play, observation, and conversation. “Turn off screens when not in use, keep them out of bedrooms, and consider watching adult television shows when kids are asleep,” says Kirkorian.
• Content matters. Not all media content is created equally. Young children don’t benefit from fast or flashy shows or apps. “Toddlers learn best from video or app content that reflects their own experiences, strong story lines that they can easily understand, and slow-paced interactions so they have time to process what is happening,” explains Kirkorian.
Don’t forget to consider adults’ screen use, too. “Kids are more likely to act out when parents are distracted,” says Kirkorian, “Model healthy behavior with your phone or other screens. Have some screen-free zones or times, like mealtime, when you focus on each other rather than a screen.”
For more tips on parenting toddlers, visit UW-Extension’s Parenting the Preschooler website. Parenting the Preschooler offers tips related to all aspects of caring for toddlers, from nutrition to literacy to sleep.
For more information on Parenting the Preschooler, visit http://fyi.uwex.edu/parentingthepreschooler/