Screen time for toddlers.

The dreaded phrase. The hot topic. The battle every parent is facing.

There is no shortage of opinions on the matter; some wildly opposing, some weakly indecisive, all at risk of seemingly unknown consequences from that wily little screen that even babies instinctively reach for.

So, let’s get it all out there. Is screen time bad for toddlers? How much screen time is too much? And how do we decrease screen time?

Is Screen Time Bad for Toddlers?

While you may find some sources saying screen time can be educational and help toddlers develop new skills—such as a widened vocabulary—or site the fact that other influences, like quality of parenting, are more important than screen time for toddlers, one thing that most experts do agree on, is that length of screen time and quality of programming matter.

“Parents can think of screens like they do giving junk food to their kids: In small doses, it’s OK, but in excess, it has consequences,” says Sheri Madigan, an assistant professor and research chair in determinants of child development at the University of Calgary.

So what kind of “junk food” programming will have the least negative impact on toddlers?

Experts at Common Sense Media say you should look for content that engages your toddler. Rather than just allowing mindless viewing or game playing, you can search out more uplifting media by following the rule of the Four Cs: Connection, Critical Thinking, Creativity, and Context.

Other authorities explain that interactive, open-ended type shows and apps are best, and especially if the parent is there as the most beneficial part of the interactive element.

Examples of some of our favorite open-ended shows include: Sesame Street, Super Why, Sid The Science Kid, and Blues Clues…just to name a few.

Just note that nothing can replace the advantages of one-on-one parenting and teaching for a lifetime of mental, emotional, and social development.

There are some things a screen simply cannot provide.

“Between birth and age three…our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us. In medical circles, this is called the critical period, because the changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built. In order for the brain’s neural networks to develop normally during the critical period, a child needs specific stimuli from the outside environment. These are rules that have evolved over centuries of human evolution, but—not surprisingly—these essential stimuli are not found on today’s tablet screens. When a young child spends too much time in front of a screen and not enough getting required stimuli from the real world, her development becomes stunted.”-Liraz Margalit, Ph.D.

How Much Screen Time is Too Much for Toddlers?

So how much screen time is too much for a toddler?

Well, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that children between the ages of two and four should get no more than 60 minutes of sedentary screen time per day. And less than 60 minutes is highly recommended.

They balance that recommendation by encouraging reading and story-telling and even more physical activity (around three hours per day).

But why? What impact is all this screen time actually having on our toddlers?

A few years ago, the WHO did a study that specifically connected more screen time with significantly higher levels of teenage obesity, lower cognitive and motor development, and poorer mental health.

Other studies indicate that too much screen time for toddlers is associated with developmental delays in communication, motor skills, problem-solving, and personal social skills.

It’s safe to say that creating healthier screen time habits in our toddlers would lessen the detrimental impact screen time is having on them now and even into adulthood.

The problem? Reality is far from what the pros recommend. Evidence suggests screen time for toddlers is far above healthy limits.

BabyCenter recently released a survey revealing that approximately 20% of babies are watching over 3 hours of screen time per day, sometimes starting as early as three months old. Usually unsupervised, and not necessarily educational. The numbers generally get higher (worse) as the kids get older.

How Do I Reduce My Toddler’s Screen Time?

So, what is the solution? How do we reduce screen time for toddlers?

RaisingChildren suggests a powerful formula for reducing screen time for toddlers, and honestly, everyone:

1. Make rules about how, where, and when screens can be used.
2. Aim for short screen time sessions.
3. Get moving, especially outside.
4. Imagine and create.
5. Encourage friendships and play with others.
6. Avoid screen time before bed.
7. Keep all screens out of bedrooms at night.

Like most things in life, screen time for toddlers is most beneficial, or perhaps just least detrimental, when utilized in moderation. High quality and interactive screen time for toddlers in small doses is a worthy goal for any toddler parent.

It can be hard to juggle family, work, and any kind of social life with parenting a toddler. But the reason screen time for toddlers has become such a topic of discussion is that we see more and more parents reaching for cell phones and tablets rather than board books and tactile toys when a toddler needs to be entertained. More and more video games and fewer games of pat-a-cake. Busy times and taking breaks happen—and have an important place in parent-child relationships—but we need to see a switch back to an emphasis on irreplaceable one-on-one interaction rather than reaching for an inanimate babysitter just to keep our kids docile and quiet, to the detriment of their social and mental development.

Think of it like junk food—we all enjoy candy, but as adults we know that after we’ve indulged in our favorite sweet, we need to balance it out with something healthy and green. Same goes for screen time for toddlers; use it wisely and balance it with a good old fashioned game of hide and seek or blowing bubbles outside.

Try it. Next time you instinctually pull out your cell phone to distract your little, use one of the suggestions from above. For instance, I’ve found that when we are stuck in a waiting room or trying to fill time before food arrives at a restaurant, I have to get creative. I’ve taken to pulling out my stash of super fun (and mostly quiet) toys that only come out for “special occasions.” Pack finger puppets, an interactive busy book, or a special set of crayons and a coloring book. The exclusivity and rarity will add to your toddler’s attentiveness and either give you a good chance to focus on what you need to get done or allow for the simple bonding moments we all so desperately need.