Screen time for babies and toddlers
: what is ok ?
- Screen time is thought to affect the visual, mental and physical development of babies and toddlers.
- No screen time is recommended for babies 0 to 2 years of age; preferably less than 1 hour a day of screen time for 2 year olds, and no more than 1 hour a day for 3 to 4 year olds.
- Exceptions for screen time are when engaging in video chats.
In this article
Digital screens are an enormous part of life for kids and adults. When it comes to healthy eye development, there are some considerations when choosing to allow screen time for your baby or toddler, which will be described in this article.
How can screens affect my baby or toddler’s eye development?
Screens come in so many forms – whether it be the TV, mobile phone, or iPad. In the first years of life, children undergo a rapid period of growth and development. Their visual system is still forming: they must learn to see, and learn to coordinate their eye movements.
When playing and interacting with others, a baby or toddler naturally shifts their attention and gaze from near to far, which helps stimulate and strengthen important visual skills like eye muscle coordination.
A screen holds a baby or toddler’s attention and gaze to one fixed point in space – they are not practicing the important skill of adjusting their focus to various distances. This would not typically happen until your baby or toddler is much older, when they learn to read.
For this reason, early screen usage (especially from birth to 1 years old) is thought to be associated with the development of myopia1 and to potentially affect the development of the full range of eye movements.
A large-scale study from China showed that children who were exposed to screens before age 1 were four times more likely to develop myopia by preschool age, than kids who were exposed to screens after age 3. Kids exposed to screens before age 2 had double the risk of myopia than those who waited until after age 3.1
Myopia is an eye condition which causes blurred far vision, and is also known as short-sightedness or near-sightedness. Once myopia develops in children, it typically deteriorates every few to several months. Myopia is a significant concern to quality of life in children and teenagers, and poses a risk to long-term eye health.
What are the recommendations on screen time?
The World Health Organization (WHO) makes the following recommendations on use of screens in children under age 5.
- 0 to 2 years of age: no screen time, except for live video chatting
- 2 year olds: No more than 1 hour per day, but less time is still preferred.
- 3 to 4 year olds: No more than 1 hour per day.
These recommendations are based not only on the effects of screen time on vision, but also on the impacts on a baby or toddler’s mental and physical well-being.
Due to the inherently sedentary nature of screen-based entertainment, babies and toddlers are at higher risk of developmental deficits when given screen time for entertainment. This is because watching a screen at a young age can limit time for active play and learning, reduce opportunities for language development, lead to less physical movement, and negatively influence their attention and motor skills.2
Too much screen time can impact young children in many ways. Balance this by ensuring they don't sit or are restrained for more than an hour at a time, and are physically active throughout the day. Read more in the World Health Organization guidelines on physical activity and screen time.
Improving the quality of screen time in babies and toddlers
It is recommended that screen time in young children be undertaken with a parent or caregiver, with the adult interacting with the child to encourage communication and language skills and to mediate the content being viewed.
- Engage your young child during screen time to explain what they are seeing and to ask them questions
- Sit alongside them and repeat new words and draw attention to what is on the screen
- Treat the screen time like you would if reading a picture book with your child. Young children learn best from physical and creative play and social time with family and friends
Being a good screen time role model
It's important for parents to set a good example as much as possible, as there is a strong link between parental screen time and that of their children.3 Here are some tips to help:
- During meal or play times, give your child your full attention and avoid checking your phone by putting it out of reach
- Avoid having the TV on in the background as this can be distracting to children and potentially expose them to distressing images. Turn the TV off when you're not actively using it.
- Set your own screen time boundaries for down-time when you're spending time with your young child - try to save your personal screen time for when your child is in bed
What about video-chatting with family?
This happens to be the only exception for screen time use in babies and young children.
The recommendations against screen time are largely based on passive viewing of screens which do not allow two-way interaction. However, video chatting fosters social development – it is an active (rather than passive) activity, as your baby or toddler is able to respond to social cues and stimuli from another person.4
These interactions can allow responsive interactions like nods, gestures and facial expressions to help young children develop communication skills. There is some indication that babies down to 6 months of age can recognize the difference between a video playing and a live video chat with a family member.
Tips to make video chats more engaging for young children can include giving screen kisses, playing peek-a-boo, sharing food, telling stories and positioning the screen at eye level. A regular video chat event with distant family can be an important way to develop these relationships.
Screen time is a big concern for every parent today, both for our kids and for us as screen users ourselves. Read our articles on screen time in different age groups via the following links.
- Yang GY, Huang LH, Schmid KL, Li CG, Chen JY, He GH, Liu L, Ruan ZL, Chen WQ. Associations Between Screen Exposure in Early Life and Myopia amongst Chinese Preschoolers. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 Feb 7;17(3):1056. (link)
- World Health Organization. Guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep for children under 5 years of age. World Health Organization. 2019. (link)
- Joshi A, Hinkley T. Too much time on screens? Screen time effects and guidelines for children and young people. Australian Institute of Family Studies, August 2021. (link)
- McClure E, Chentsova-Dutton Y, Barr R, Holochwost S, Parrott W. FaceTime doesn’t count: Video chat as an exception to media restrictions for infants and toddlers. International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction. 2016;6. (link)