Swap Toddler Screen Time for Face-to-Face Time

Science and common sense confirm that a toddler is socially, physically and academically ahead if screens are left behind.
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Have you ever watched a toddler on a smartphone or tablet and been amazed by her ability to swipe, navigate and brilliantly figure out the educational tools? With good intentions, we place screens in front of toddlers, assuming that they can learn something when in fact, screens do not help young children develop their thinking skills.

Without question, toddlers are very bright. At age 3, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult brain. When he or she is interacting with a screen, however, you are witnessing what brain scientists call an orienting response or reflex, not signs of budding intelligence. A cat that swipes at a fish on his screen (yes, there are such things as cat apps) has the same reflex. A toddler simply responds to the novel or significant stimuli of the bright lights and sounds. The key to stimulating a child’s developing brain is simpler — and cheaper — than an expensive piece of technology. Here is what your child needs more than screens.

Spoken Words

Dr. Dana Suskind, author of “Thirty Million Words,” identifies parent-talk as the most valuable resource in the world. Language develops the brain’s optimal potential. Talking, singing, reading and speaking words in person in a serve-and-receive manner engage the whole brain. Words are so important that a lack of them during the first three years of life can permanently put your child on a lower trajectory for academic success. Smarter kids have more words spoken to them, not more screen time. Talk to your child all the time. Put your phone away when you are at the grocery store and talk face-to-face about everything you are doing. Make eye contact. Even read this article out loud to him. The sound of your words matter more than the content.

Run, Dance, Jump

More than genetics, physical movement stimulates neural pathways needed for brain development. Early and abundant movement affects how well a toddler learns in the future. Screen time is always sedentary, and a toddler gets screen time simply by secondhand use: family TV, watching their parents’ use the phone, and being in the same room with a sibling on the computer.

Hugs and Cuddles

One square inch of skin has 1,000 nerve endings. Pleasant, nurturing, physical touch, including sensory experiences, shapes brain development. Replace screens with hugs — as if we needed more reasons to cuddle the little ones.

Build Personal Bonds

Strong parental attachment makes for healthy brains. In the absence of a connected parent, children may attach to devices and can develop loneliness. Be mindful to be fully present when you are with your young child.

Device Trade-offs

  • Choose everyday conversations to teach colors and ABC’s. Toddlers learn much more from you then they will from an app.
  • Plan ahead. Keep small toys, books and laminated photos (of people, family, pets and funny things) in your purse to trump screen time when out and about.
  • Hire a young neighbor “helper” to play with your toddler when you are home and need to get work done. It is an inexpensive way for them to hear more words and develop social skills. Choose being outside over screen time any time you can.

Toddlers who find comfort in screens can easily turn into big kids with screen problems. Science and common sense confirms that a toddler is socially, physically and academically ahead if screens are left behind.


Melanie Hempe is the founder of Families Managing Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping families reduce childhood screen overuse. For more information visit familiesmanagingmedia.com.