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The Competent Parent: Screen time limits for tots

Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Screen Time Limits for Tots

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My son is two and a half and really likes to watch Disney movies, Baby Einstein, Your Baby Can Read videos and Monster Jam show recordings. (We’re going to a taping of the show in Baltimore in a couple weeks!) How much “screen time” is reasonable each day? Some of my friends say there should be a limit, but he just loves this stuff! The Your Baby Can Read program advises three hours a day, but we only do one 20-minute video every other day or so. We’ve also started watching Your Child Can Discover and he likes these, too.


Dear Mom,

Yes, there should be a limit. Three hours cuts into time he could be exploring the real world – experimenting with objects and substances, figuring out how his hands and body work, observing nature, inventing and creating, and making important discoveries about interactions between human beings.

In the professional arena of early childhood education we caution against spending too much time in front of television and computer screens, even “educational” videos and games. There is so much to learn about in the years before school, the years in which the brain is developing the neural connections that will be used in school and beyond. Readiness for school involves skills and experiences that are “age-appropriate.” Reading at age 2 is unnecessary.

The development of true reading skills happens with a variety of experiences, not just sounding out a string of letters. Comprehension of what’s being read is a complex mental process that comes from relating the sounds the letters make to real experiences, human emotions, and an unlimited realm of ideas. While it is amazing that a baby can call out the word on a flash card or point to a body part after being shown the printed word, there are many other amazing things a baby or toddler can learn that will hold him in good stead the rest of his life: research skills, for one. Think of the skills your son uses as he studies blowing bubbles: hypothesis and experiment, observe and categorize, cause and effect, trial and error. How much force do I need to use to make bubbles come off a bubble wand? How many times can I blow before I need to re-dip? What is the highest distance a bubble will travel before popping? How does wind affect the bubbles? This learning doesn’t happen with a video.

Curious about “Your Baby Can Read,” I used my own research skills and went online to investigate. Ironically, I found a video. It was a Today Show from Nov. 2, 2010 that addressed a Federal Trade Commission complaint that the product’s marketing is deceptive. The program went on to interview early childhood and reading experts and drove home the point that drilling babies to memorize words has no long-term benefit. Maryanne Wolf, Ph.D., director of Cognitive Neuroscience from Tufts University says, “There is not one single study in which anyone says children who learn to read before 5 do better later on.”

Susan Linn, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is also officially complaining to the FTC. A post from April 13, 2011 quotes her: “There’s no evidence that ‘Your Baby Can Read’ is doing anything for babies except potentially harming them by getting them hooked on screens so early in life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of 2. So does the White House task force on childhood obesity.”

So there you have it. My advice is to limit your son’s use of video to, at the most, an hour a day – with careful choices about what he sees and hands-on follow up with the real things being depicted whenever practical. The monster truck show will be a nice opportunity for him to experience the realities of the size, noise, smell, and human drama of it all. You don’t get that from the television screen.

Dr. Debbie

Don’t miss last week’s post on mother/father differences.

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com“>editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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