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Your judgement-free guide to setting healthy screen time boundaries

Chloe Schneider

Chloe Schneider

Chloe is a writer and content strategist with bylines in mindbodygreen, Mashable, Ageless by Rescu, and more. She's a mum to one-year-old Felix, and believes that you can have it all, you just can't have it all at once
Created on Apr 17, 2024 · 7 mins read
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If reading the phrase ‘screen time’ triggers your fight or flight; you’re not alone, and you’re not being dramatic.

Screen time is a topic that is so fraught with fear-mongering headlines and finger-wagging grandparents, it can send even the thickest-skinned parents into a guilt spiral. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way. 

In this article, we’re going to take a judgement-free, just-the-facts look at the latest data on screen time and toddlers, the positive role screens can play, and practical tips for parents who want to set some healthy boundaries around screen time at home. 

The latest data on screen time and toddlers

We all saw the panic headlines last month: Screen time is “robbing” toddlers of human-to-human interactions that help build language. 

These headlines were based on a new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that looked at 220 Australian families who were tracked for two-and-a-half years – their toddlers fitted with a device to record 16 hours of audio a day. The results showed that three-year-olds were averaging three hours of screen time a day. For every one minute of screen time, they were hearing seven fewer adult words and speaking five fewer words themselves. This equates to 1,100 fewer adult words and 194 fewer conversations a day.

The conclusion researchers reached as a result of this study was fairly straightforward; “Findings of this study support the notion of technoference for Australian families, whereby young children’s exposure to screen time is interfering with opportunities to talk and interact in their home environment”

There’s no denying the significance of that. Early language development is important, and no parent wants to deprive their kids of opportunities to build those skills. 

But keeping it in perspective, nothing in the research shows that hearing fewer words causes long-term literacy problems and researchers did not go so far as to say all screen time is negative. 

Real talk: Healthy screen time does exist

Researchers involved in the study stopped short of saying all screen time is negative. Instead, they encouraged parents to select more educational shows, be there to answer questions that toddlers have while they watch, and get intentional about screen time (rather than keeping the TV on just for background noise). 

When screen time is intentional, it can benefit families. Here are some examples:

  • Education through entertainment: There are so many high-quality, educational shows and games out there that toddlers can learn from while getting a bit of downtime. We all take in content differently and some toddlers will be drawn to this entertaining education.
  • Emotional regulation: Screen time can help highly sensitive, introverted, or neurodivergent children to rest, recuperate, and regulate after a period of sensory overload. The same can be said for toddlers who have simply had a tough, exhausting day, or are getting through an illness.
  • Parenting breaks: Some of the shame around screen time is that parents are just doing it to get a break. But, in small doses, is this really so bad? If you’re a single parent or you’re simply feeling burnt out, a 20-minute break while your toddler watches Ms. Rachel can be protective for your mental health. And if that means you are better equipped to respond to your kids for the rest of the day, that’s a massive win for everyone.

Realistic healthy boundary setting with screen time

Australia’s guidelines recommend no screen time for children younger than two years and no more than one hour a day for children aged two to five years. 

These time-based guidelines can be helpful for some parents, but it’s important to remember they are just that — guidelines — and if you find them hard to stick to, you’re certainly not alone.

It’s a little like setting a universally recommended daily calorie quota — sure, it can help to have a guideline to aim for, but that number on its own assumes we all need the exact same amount of food every day. It also doesn’t tell us anything about the nutrients we consume. 

As a parent, I hope to focus a little less on quantity and a little more on quality to help my son learn the skills he needs to make screens a healthy part of his life in the future. 

With that in mind, these tips balance clock-watching with skill-setting to help you find those healthy boundaries for your unique family. 

1. Balance activities over the course of a week 

If there’s one thing the experts do agree on, it’s that too much screen time becomes detrimental if it takes your toddler away from other learning and developmental opportunities. For example, screen time can become negative if it regularly replaces outdoor play for your toddler.  

Take a look at your average week and ask yourself:

  • Is your toddler spending time outdoors or moving indoors to learn new physical skills? 
  • Are they watching you perform tasks like cooking and cleaning? 
  • Are you narrating your day or having conversations with them? 
  • Is your toddler socialising with adults and children during the week?
  • Is your toddler regularly engaging in creative play or activities? 

If you answered yes to all of this, it’s likely the screen time your toddler has is simply part of a balanced life. If you answered no, add an activity or two to your week (it can be as simple as going to the park) or simply aim to take your toddler along to run errands with you –  rather than leaving them with another caregiver. 

If developmental milestones are a concern, speak to your doctor to ensure you understand the root cause and can get early intervention if needed.

2. Encourage more high-quality shows and games

When your toddler is still little, you have a bit more control over what they watch. Use it wisely and introduce them to more educational shows or games. 

When assessing what’s on, ask yourself:

  • Is this show/game educational? 
  • Does this show/game include dialogue that your child could pick up on? 
  • Is a caregiver present or nearby to answer questions? 
  • Is screen time intentional? 

If you answered yes to all of these questions, it’s likely your kids screen time is higher quality. If one of the shows you watch regularly does not pass the test, slowly start introducing some alternatives to help get that balance.

3. Set a time limit if you need to

There are kids who simply want to watch TV or play games all day long — and putting in time restrictions becomes a necessary part of boundary setting. 

If that’s your kid, start by giving them some warning that the TV will be switched off after one episode or a certain period of time. Remember toddlers have no sense of time in the traditional sense, so rather than giving them a deadline like ‘in 10 minutes,’ invest in a colourful hourglass or other visual timer so they can see how much time remains.

If you’ve set that boundary for screen time — stick to it. It won’t be easy, but it could be a boundary tool that helps them put a cap on their social media scrolling as they reach the teen or adult years. 

4. Model good behaviours

This might be the hardest one of all. As parents, we often need to be on our phones to respond to emails or messages or check in on the news. Telling us to ignore our phones when we’re with our kids is, well, useless. 

The best way forward is to be intentional about when we are picking up our phone or laptop. In other words, finish the conversation and tell your toddler, ‘I just need 10 minutes to respond to an email.’ Once that’s done, put the phone down and re-engage. 

It might sound counterintuitive, but carving out time for screens rather than checking them sporadically models intentional tech usage and limits technoference in the home. 

Wrapping it up

Screen time is about building healthy habits for life, not winning a daily time challenge. 

Rather than feeling stressed by the daily time restraints around screen time, look at the whole picture and aim to promote a healthy balance with screens.

You’ll take off some of the pressure on yourself as a parent – you’ll also help your toddler learn about setting healthy boundaries around screens later in life. 


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