How Much Is Too Much Screen Time for a Preschooler?

Who doesn’t love the idea of snuggling up for a movie night with your family? But before you stream the latest rage on Netflix, you might want to understand the effects of screen time for your preschooler. And of course, it’s not only TV you have to concern yourself with. There are smartphones and tablets with touchscreens that even the youngest children can manipulate. So how much is too much screen time for a preschooler? Is there really any harm in letting your toddler play with an education app on a tablet, especially if your child enjoys it (and it affords you time to get dinner on the table)?

No-nonsense Screen Time Recommendations

From 1999 (way before the iPad) to 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended no screen time before age 2 and less than 2 hours of screen time for children between ages 2 and 5. But in October 2016, understanding the reality of the times we lived in, the AAP changed its recommendation.

The first change they made addressed the reality that screen time in a world where we are surrounded by digital media 24/7 is difficult to quantify, and not all screen time is created equal.

So, rather than offer a blanket recommendation for screen time, the new guidelines take into consideration the purpose of the digital media being consumed. The new AAP screen time recommendations apply to time spent using digital media for entertainment purposes.

Other uses, which may include educational apps as homework or tutorials, don’t count as screen time.

  • Children younger than 18 months: Avoid use of screen media other than video-chatting.
  • Children 18-24 months: Introduce high-quality programming and watch it with your child to help him understand what he is seeing.
  • Children 2 to 5 years: Limit screen time to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs and watch it with your child to help her understand what she is seeing and apply it to the world around her.
  • Children 6 and older: Place consistent limits on time spent using media, the types of media, and make sure it does not interfere with adequate sleep, physical activity, and other behaviors essential to health.

Designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms. Have ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety, including treating others with respect online and offline.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics Announces New Recommendations for Children’s Media Use

What negative effects can too much screen time, especially entertainment-only screen time, have on your preschooler?


Behavioral Effects: More Screen Time = Overstimulation and Distress

For infants, it’s easy to see your baby gaze at the screen contently and think, “She likes it!” But, according to Dr. David L. Hill, “it takes around 18 months for a baby’s brain to develop to the point where the symbols on a screen come to represent their equivalents in the real world.” More accurately, the noise and activity of a screen are distracting, and a baby can easily become overstimulated by the lights and sounds, leading to distress and sleep problems, according to experts cited in an article by CNN.

Cognitive Effects: More Screen Time = Less People Time = Slower Development

The AAP’s concern with screen time is not so much about what children are doing while consuming digital media; it’s more what they aren’t doing. Children learn by interacting with other people. They see you cooking dinner, and they want to play with pots and pans. They see you reading a book, and they pick up their own book to “read.”

If screen time is not limited, it leaves less time for them to interact with others, which can delay development. Consider vocabulary development, for example. Parents normally speak around 940 words per hour in front of their toddler. However, if parents have a TV on (even if they’re not watching it), that number falls to 770! The fewer the words, the slower the vocabulary development, according to Dr. Hill.

Bonding Effects: More Screen Time = Disconnection Between Parent and Child

Beyond these behavioral and cognitive consequences, perhaps the most concerning effect of too much screen time for preschoolers is the impact on the parent-child connection. Face-to-face interaction, especially eye contact, forms bonds. When babies and toddlers are deprived of that interaction, either because they or their parent is distracted by digital media, bonding is strained and can cause a disconnect between parents and children.


So, should you ban screen time completely?

Don’t let the negative effects of prolonged screen time guilt you into never sitting down with your child to learn or be entertained by digital media.

If you and your toddler are engaged in the experience together, it can have positive effects. You can engage in conversations about what you watched that can stimulate vocabulary as well as solidify the connection between you and your child.

“The latest neuroscience research shows that the more a digital experience approximates live two-way communication, the more a child younger than 2 will understand and process it,” says Dr. Ari Brown, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, you should encourage facetiming with Grandma or skyping with aunts and uncles. And prioritize shows that represent authentic communication between characters.

Besides, there’s never been a better selection of digital media to offer your child. The AAP emphasizes high-quality programming in its recommendation, and it’s not hard to find programming that stimulates imagination, lays a foundation for literacy and math, and models cooperative interactions. Here are five shows recommended by Parenting Magazine:

  • Between the Lions (PBS Kids)
  • Team Umizoomi (Nick Jr.)
  • Little Einsteins (Playhouse Disney)
  • Sid the Science Kid (PBS Kids)
  • Yo Gabba Gabba! (Nick Jr.)


Making the Right Choice for You

Bottom line, the evidence is clear that too much screen time, particularly entertainment-only screen time, can undoubtedly interfere with your child’s behavioral, cognitive, and bonding development.

But just like most things in parenting, whether or not your child is negatively affected is far more dependent on the context of the screen time than the screen time itself. If you are routinely playing with your child, reading with your child, and talking with your child, then you are laying a foundation that will certainly hold up to an occasional episode of her favorite entertainment-only show. And on those days when that’s the only way to get that dinner on the table, don’t sweat it. Just counter it with one extra story and two extra hugs at bedtime. Chances are, you and your child will be able to rest easy.


Terra Tarango
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Terra Tarango is a mom as well as an accomplished executive in the education industry with more than 15 years of experience in educational publishing and services. She currently serves as the Chief Education Officer at the Van Andel Education Institute (VAEI). She is an expert in instructional climate and culture and has devoted her career to helping teachers create learning experiences where curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking thrive.

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