Screen Time Guidelines for Preschoolers

by Abby Woodhouse on April 20, 2017

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Parenting as a single parent can prove difficult, particularly when it comes to occupying your children. You have to provide dinner while watching your children. The easiest solution to this paradox involves media.

Here are your options: 1) let your children sit and watch TV or play with an iPad and get dinner ready or 2) watch your child tear the house apart while you distractedly try to get dinner together.

Is there any danger for your preschooler in media? How can you set up realistic, safe screen time guidelines?

First, let's examine the effect of media on preschoolers. We'll be better positioned, then, to offer some suggestions for screen time guidelines for your preschooler.

Media's Effect on Preschoolers

Maybe the best place to start is with a definition. By "screen time" I mean time spent on an electronic device for entertainment. Time spent doing online homework, for instance, isn't something I'm going to discuss here.

Some studies show that frequent media use in young children can slow development, particularly if the media includes fast-moving and distracting images.

Dr. Yolanda Reid Chassiakos writes,

Toddler-aged kids haven't developed the cognitive skills to understand advertisements or animations, she explained. Children at this age "can't interpret images like an older kid," meaning they can't decipher between real-world people and fictional cartoons.1

Some other media, however, like FaceTime can enhance relational development. So keep up those Skype calls to grandma! If parents engage with their children while they engage in entertainment media, media can be a positive tool for development.

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Suggested Screen Time Guidelines

In November 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a new set of guidelines for children's media use. Among other recommendations, the AAP suggests the following for children ages 2–5.2

1. One hour per day of high-quality programing

Avoid programing or apps with overstimulating sights or sounds. Commercials are often the biggest culprit here and often unethically appeal to children who cannot differentiate between advertising and factual information.

“Avoid fast-paced programs (young children do not understand them well), apps with lots of distracting content, and any violent content.”

2. No screens during the hour leading up to bedtime

In addition, the APP also recommends that parents remove any media devices from children's bedrooms.

3. Be engaged

Ask the same questions you would ask for a sleepover or a playdate with a friend. For instance, “Who are you playing with?” Or “What will you be doing?”

Does your child want a new app? Download it first and check it out yourself. Set parental restrictions and engage in the media your child enjoys. Help him or her interpret what (s)he's seeing and hearing.

Dr. David Hill says, 

There’s good research going back decades to suggest kids really can learn from "well-constructed” educational programs....“But even then, it’s better to have a parent involved and reinforcing what’s on the screen,” he says. For example, if your daughter is watching a video about colors, you could watch with her and point around the room at examples of red or blue or yellow objects.3

As one NPR summary concludes, the upshot of these new guidelines is that you get to spend more time with your kids. 

4. Avoid using media as ”the only way to calm your child”

There are obviously exceptions to this rule (e.g., medical procedures, airplane flights, etc.). ”Using media as a strategy to calm could lead to problems with limit setting or the inability of children to develop their own emotion regulation.“

5. Set Media-Free Times and Places

Mealtimes, bedrooms, and parent-child play times should be media free. Put your phone on “do not disturb“ or leave it in another room. It's important that you model these screen free times for your children.

6. Turn off TVs and other devices when not in use

This protects against seeing media as the default.

Get a Media Plan

One final point deserves its own section. The AAP recognizes that no plan works for every family.

For this reason, they've developed a family media plan module online to help parents tailor screen time guidelines for preschoolers through adolescents.

You can access the Family Media Plan here.

Preschool Options: Which is The Right Fit For My Child?

  1. According to a CNN article.

  2. Many of the following statements are summaries or quotations from the new guidelines.