Should Toddlers Be Kept Away From Screens?

Yes, at least for a few years

Key Takeaways

  • The WHO recommends kids under 5 spend no more than an hour a day looking at screens.
  • Games designed for kids are probably better than Grand Theft Auto V.
  • Screen time should be balanced with physical play and social interaction.
girl sitting in a chair and reading an iPad

Patricia Prudente / Unsplash

Pok Pok Playroom is a new app for kids from the team that brought us Alto’s Adventure. But should kids be playing games, or even looking at screens at all?

There are two main schools of thought here. One is that kids shouldn’t be looking at screens. There’s even a growing movement to keep kids away from any screens until they’re at least 3 years old. The other opinion is more pragmatic: Kids are going to encounter screens and games, so you should just control what they see, and balance exposure time with other activities. 

"Honestly, it depends on the type of games that kids are playing," games journalist and meditation teacher Paul Harrsion told Lifewire via email. "While some parents and media outlets focus solely on the negatives of gaming, there is, in fact, a positive side. Some games and apps are beneficial for kids."

Screens vs Eyes

At a basic level, staring at a screen just isn’t good for your eyes. As adults, we’re familiar with eye strain, and know that it gets worse the closer the screen gets to our eyes. 

"We know that higher amounts of [close-up] screen time affect kids' eyes in several ways," ophthalmologist Yuna Rapoport told Lifewire via email. "It increases myopia (nearsightedness). This has been documented in many scientific journals recently, [and it] increases dry eye/eye strain/irritation because when we are focused on screens, we forget to blink."

Rapaport recommends the 20-20-20 rule: "Every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds."

"Allowing your child a set amount of time per day/per time of day can help them to better learn how to manage limited time."

WHO guidelines from 2019 go even further, recommending that kids under 5 spend no more than an hour a day looking at screens.

So, wouldn’t it just be easier to keep young eyes away from screens altogether? Or are there benefits to screen time?

Computers Are an Essential Skill

Computers are just one more environmental feature in today’s world, so shouldn’t kids get used to them? After all, they’re going to have to learn eventually. 

"The debate about when and how—even whether—to introduce our kids to digital screen time is a strange one to me," software developer and dad Dave Pedley told Lifewire via email. "Digital devices, computers, tablets, cell phones—they are all intrinsic parts of life. And mastering their use is a life skill that all kids will need from the very earliest age."

toddlers sitting on a sofa and using a tablet

Jelleke Vanooteghem / Getty Images

According to family physician Dr. Waqas Ahmad Buttar, computer use can have several learning benefits. It can improve hand-eye coordination, support reasoning and problem-solving skills, and be educational. And, contrary to what parents might think after trying to drag their little monster off the iPad, gaming can support self-control and time management.

"Allowing your child a set amount of time per day/per time of day (eg 'No more than three hours before 8:00 PM') can help them to better learn how to manage limited time," Buttar told Lifewire via email.

But do kids really need to master computers "from the very earliest age"? There are plenty of other essential skills that we deem fit or appropriate to leave until later.

How to Manage Screen Time

First, you have to decide what is appropriate for your kids, then you have to manage the time they spend with games or other apps.

"It’s been proven numerous times that seeing something done in a video game does not increase your chances of doing that in real life in any way," says Buttar. "However, that doesn’t mean you want your kids exploring the strip clubs of GTA V or playing explicit games like HuniePop."

And then, schedule time away from screens, which is also essential.

"Children should have some time with active and imaginary play daily in addition to time on screens," Danelle Fisher, MD, FAAP, pediatrician, and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, told Lifewire via email. "Children need to have enough human interaction to be able to recognize emotions in themselves and in their peers. Difficulty with other human relationships may be an indication of too much screen time."

So, how much is too much? First, add together all screen time, not just tablet or phone time. You need to factor in TV time, too. 

"Over two hours a day of all the screen sources together is too much," pediatrician Gina Posner, MD, told Lifewire via email. "The mistake many parents make when it comes to screen time is that they let their kids just sit in front of a screen all day."

In the end, it’s probably pretty easy to tell if your kids are getting hooked.

"If your child begins having tantrums from not being on their device all day, you need to cut back, and immediately," says Posner.

Was this page helpful?