Toddlers and Media

As parents of a 2- to 3-year-old, how do we begin placing healthy limits on our child's exposure to television, video games, and the Internet? We've heard a lot about the negative impact of electronic media on adolescents and pre-teens, and we want to start encouraging good habits in this area as early as we can. What can we do?

You’re right to be thinking about this issue at this early stage in your child’s life. As your toddler grows into his preschool and school-age years, you will have more complicated problems to address regarding his relationship to video screens of all kinds – TVs, computer monitors, handheld units, game players and beyond.

Here are a few key considerations to keep in mind as you oversee your toddler’s interactions with media. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll use the generic term TV to refer to any and all types of electronic screens that a child might be interested in watching.

Decide what, when, and how long your child will watch TV.

Set definite limits on viewing time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children and adolescents watch no more than one to two hours of TV per day, while TV should be avoided altogether for babies and children under two years of age.

Also, monitor what’s happening onscreen and be prepared to remove your toddler (or shut the program off) if things are getting too intense. When the show is over, talk to your child about what he has just seen. Even a program with elements or a message you don’t like can be a teaching springboard if you put your own spin on its content (for example, “That boy didn’t speak very nicely to his mom, did he?”).

Be discerning about children’s programs that you bought or borrowed.

Watch them yourself before showing them to your child. Some G-rated cartoons contain messages that may undermine or contradict the spiritual values you cherish. You may also be surprised at the intensity and violence of many vintage cartoons that you watched when you were growing up and that are now being recycled. Don’t assume that if it was good enough for you, it’s okay for your children.

You should be even more careful with video games. Though a toddler probably won’t have much luck manipulating the controls, he may end up being exposed to some grisly and disturbing images in the process.

Don’t get into the habit of using the TV as an electronic babysitter.

After a long day it’s extremely tempting to park the kids in front of the screen so you can pick up the clutter, get a meal started or simply put your feet up for a few minutes. If you need a time-out, put on a specific show you know is worthwhile or at least search for wholesome kids’ programming.

But don’t leave the TV on for hours on end or allow older children to channel surf, because you will lose control of those powerful images and sounds entering the minds of the most important people in your life.

Ask yourself if screens are crowding out conversation and meaningful person-to-person interaction in your family.

Consider declaring your home a “TV-free zone” one or more evenings every week in order to encourage reading, games or other activities. Don’t allow the TV to become an intruder at any family meal.

Don’t be afraid to resort to drastic measures if they become necessary.

If you are having trouble controlling the broadcast material coming into your home, consider disconnecting the cable or antenna and relying strictly on DVDs. If TV-watching gets completely out of control, consider as a last resort giving the television (or computer or game box) a new home for a while – unplugged in the garage.

If you need help applying these guidelines to your family’s situation, we hope you’ll feel free you to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.


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