Going to Let Your Toddler Watch TV? Better Watch With Them

If you're going to let your little one watch a little TV, you should watch with them and make the experience interactive for the two of you. Andrea Velez-Greene/Getty Images

It used to be that parents scolded kids with the old "don't watch too much television, it'll turn your brain to mush" argument.

But over the years, researchers have steadily fine-tuned that argument with data linking TV watching to obesity and cognitive, emotional and social delays, among other things. Given those links, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has traditionally recommended no screen time before the age of 2 for children, and been strict about viewing habits for older kids, as well.

But that's changing.

No, the AAP isn't imploring parents to watch the new season of "Narcos" with the kiddos. And the organization also isn't saying that kids need less playtime and stimulation than before. But it is backing off the strict no-screens rule: Instead of advising a total ban on screens, it just released new recommendations that advise parents to avoid screens but offers some suggestions about how to introduce media if that's a part of family interactions.

And that's a pretty striking departure for the AAP. The new recs go a long way to acknowledge the digital landscape in a lot of homes, and it creates a more detailed set of guidelines for how to use media wisely.

Dr. Megan Moreno is an associate professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children's Hospital, and one of the lead authors on the new AAP policy statement that detailed recommendations for children ages 5 to 18. Instead of simply saying that kids should limit screen time or only watch educational television, the new statement points out some ways — like co-viewing — that could help enrich a media experience.

"By co-viewing media, parents can learn what their kids like, are interested in, and are worried about," Moreno says in an email. "When parents co-view media with their kids, discussions can flow from shared media time. These discussions can even include tougher topics such as bullying or sex that parents may find challenging to bring up on their own."

This same recommendation applies to the younger kids — 18 to 24 months — who were formerly discouraged from any screen time. While the AAP recommends appropriate and high-quality programming (they name-check PBS Kids and Sesame Street Workshop shows), they make a point of arguing for co-viewing with your toddler, as a time for continued engagement and even bonding.

"Kids will likely learn more from the time and snuggles with their parents than the media itself at these ages," Moreno points out.

Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Hospital and one of the lead authors on the AAP policy statement for kids birth to 2, does stress in an email that the new policy doesn't encourage use of media for those under 2 but "interactive screen time with a caregiver at 18 months on is not harmful and may be beneficial. Overall babies need laps more than apps."

And that seems to be the point the AAP and researchers want to drive home. Finding more ways to interact, engage and get to know your child is great, and that can happen with a screen.  

"New guidelines are meant to empower parents, not guilt them," Moreno says. So if the screen is on, just remember that a parent needs to be fully turned up, too.