Screen time

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by Mage

As the children at Elm House grow older, they tell us many stories. Stories that they made up on the spot, stories about their lives outside of school–both fiction and non-fiction, and they also tell us stories about what they saw on screens.

“Last night I watched a movie!” one child told me, recently.
“You watched a movie? Wow. What else did you do at home last night, did you play?”
“Yeah, a little but I just watched a movie!”

I have also observed how the children covet lovies that represent cartoon characters, and how some children incorporate elements of animated shows into their imaginary play.

I think I should tell you right off the bat, that I believe the use of screens with toddlers is okay, only if it is done in a very specific way. So I’m not here to serve you an absolute no to screen time, but the caveat is that screen time must involve adult engagement and interaction. Please, allow me to explain where I’m coming from and what I mean by adult engagement.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in a 2016 report “Media and Young Minds,” there is evidence that children at 24 months of age can learn words from video-chatting with adults, and there is evidence that children at 15 months of age can learn words from digital apps but have difficulty applying the knowledge. Furthermore, children–including infants–exposed to screens (any screen that emits blue light) in the night hours are shown to sleep significantly less than those who have no exposure to screens. Children learn primarily from interacting with adults, that is how our brains are wired. They learn from hearing our words, our tone of voice, watching our facial expressions, and watching what we do. As David Hill, MD, states in Why to Avoid TV for Infants and Toddlers, “A toddler learns a lot more from banging pans on the floor while you cook dinner than he does from watching a screen for the same amount of time, because every now and then the two of you look at each other.”

So if you must incorporate screens into your toddler’s day, try to do so in a way that makes the screen secondary to your time together. Talk about what you see on the television, as the show is happening. Get up and dance together when a show has music. Use a story from tv as a springboard for dramatic play, or if the characters are playing basketball on tv, get out the basketball and have your child play with you. If you are using video-chat, front-load your child so that they are prepared for the experience. Tell them who they will be seeing and hearing on the screen; if it’s a relative they don’t see every day, remind them of the last time they were together, and something that they did together. Include the child in the video conversation. These are some examples of ways to engage your child when you have screen time, use your creativity to come up with your own ideas. The important take-away is to engage the child, to activate the brain, which will want to become passive while viewing a screen.

At Elm House, what we usually recommend is that screen time be reserved for weekends (or days when a child is not attending school). We have found that when children watch television before school (the night before or morning of), that they appear to have decreased attention. And with children who view screens before school, we find that they may have a harder time with drop off because they did not spend the morning connecting with a parent before school. These observations are based on either parent or child reports of screen time. I do not share this information with you to make you feel shame. I can definitely imagine that in times of stress and exhaustion, especially if there is a new baby in the house or another huge transition, that giving in to screen time might become a sacrifice you make for your sanity. What I do hope you would feel from reading this, is an encouragement to find creative ways to engage your child, and a feeling that you have a great deal of power to enable your child’s learning at home and at school. And your child’s connection with you may be their greatest source of learning in these early years of their life.


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