12 - 48 Months

How to Limit Your Toddler’s Screen Time

“Scaffold their attention-building. If they’ve had a really intense screen habit, maybe they don’t know how to deal with boredom yet.”

Dr. Meghan Owenz, screenfreeparenting.com

Few topics will spark debate among parents more enthusiastically than screen time. It’s so controversial. Screens are everywhere, and the research on how they impact developing brains is mixed.

Some equate screens with books, considering it just another form of media. And then there are perspectives like those of Psychologist Aric Sigman. He recently went so far as to say: Although screens can appear to hold your two-year-old’s attention, they are actually “…impeding the development of the ability that parents are so eager to foster… The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention…” 

The purpose of this episode is to provide a perspective from a parent who has made an intentional decision to be screen-free with her own two children, now 5 and 8. And to offer advice on how to keep screen time to a minimum.

Dr. Meghan Owenz goes by “Dr. Screen Free Mom”. She runs a website, ScreenFreeParenting.com, with over 27,000 active and engaged participants. She is also an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State University.

Key Takeaways:

[1:46] What does screen-free look like for Meghan’s family?

[2:24] Meghan shares her alternatives for keeping kids engaged and busy.

[3:23] Use her S.P.O.I.L. system to cut down on screen time.

[4:38] How can independent play be achieved so parents can have a break too?

[6:37] Rotate favorite toys in and out of special baskets so that they feel fresh. 

[8:18] Does screen-free mean more stuff? There are ways around it: Something as simple as a scarf can offer miles of road-trip diversion.

[9:37] What does the science tell us about the effects of screen time on kids? 

[11:17] Meghan shares research findings on attention.

[12:13] Meghan talks about how language is impacted by screens.

[14:00] What about connecting with grandparents or friends over Zoom or FaceTime? 

[16:13] How does Meghan help parents wean their children from screens?

[18:08] What does becoming screen-free look like?

[19:38] How can a parent enforce a screen-free approach? She provides advice around changing rules with a toddler, as well as older children.

[22:45] Jessica provides a recap of an eye-opening conversation with Dr. Meghan Owenz.

Mentioned in this episode:

Screen-Free Parenting


What Does a Screen-Free Household Look Like?

Jessica: Hello, Meghan.

Meghan: Hi, Jessica, how are you doing?

Jessica: Great, and I’m so excited to talk to you today. It’s such an important topic, and I’m really curious to start with, what does screen-free look like for your family?

Meghan: Well, you know, the honest answer to that is, it looks messy. Yesterday, my kids did a magic show, held a book fair, and threw a birthday party for stuffed animals. So, it was a big, big mess in the house. But mostly it looks like kids doing what kids have always done. Running around outside, settling down to hear a story, and getting involved in some messy pretend-play.

What Is the Secret to Avoiding Screens at Home?

Jessica: And so what is your secret to avoiding screens in your own home?

Meghan: It’s really interesting to run this website that’s all about something that we don’t really do. [chuckle] So we don’t think about it as avoiding screens, we think about it as… Avoidance is a particular type of goal, I’m going to avoid high-fat, high-sugar foods because I’m on a diet, and we know that that has really limited success with humans, that’s why people are always on one diet after another. It’s very hard. We use our willpower and that gets drained over periods of use, and so it’s hard to have an avoidance goal. So I think about screen time in our family as an approach goal, which is like, we’re moving towards something.

What Is Your System for Living Screen-Free?

Meghan: So we want to be a family that’s really active and engaged together and spends a lot of time together. We’re a family that spends a lot of time outdoors. We’re a family that hugely values reading, we all love reading. And so, we promote what we call the SPOIL System, which is just a quick acronym for five categories of activities that science has shown for well over 50 years, are associated with positive child development. Whereas all the research on screens is continually evolving. So, SPOIL stands for social-time, that might mean playing tag or wrestling with a parent, or playing a board game. Play-time, which is all that free, imaginative play that is so good for children. Outdoor-time that they’re outside running around, they’re in the forest, they’re spending time with whatever outdoor space is available to them. Independent-work, every day in our house, we spend some time engaged in child-appropriate chores, things they can really feel ownership of and do themselves, which might be making the bed, to emptying the dishwasher, to folding some laundry. And then the L in SPOIL stands for literacy-based activities, so they spend time reading and being read to, and listening to audiobooks, and those sorts of things. So really, it’s about what we do, not necessarily what we’re not doing. So those are the sort of things we’re doing every day, and we really just don’t have time for a lot of screens at the end of it.

What Are Some Tips or Substitutions for Limiting Screen Use?

Jessica: Yeah, it’s so great to kind of hear that painted picture. I love the SPOIL acronym. That’s great. And so, what about… They’re so effective in entertaining toddlers when a parent needs to take a shower, or to have a work conversation. What alternatives do you suggest? How do you do that independent play, and have it work for the parent, and give the parent a break too?

Let Your Children Process Emotions Distraction-Free

Meghan: So one thing that the American Academy of Pediatrics in their policy statement on screens, one thing they really emphasize is, to not use screens to distract a child from negative emotion. And I think sometimes when you’re taking a shower, or you’re on a phone call, or in a meeting, or whatever it is that you’re doing, cooking dinner, there are some negative emotions there in your child, right, like either boredom, which is a low-level negative emotion, or maybe anger or frustration that you’re not paying attention to them or you’re not helping them. And so it’s easy to pop the screen in there, right, to eliminate that negative emotion, like, “I’m not paying attention to you, but, look at those cast of characters that is.” What happens when you don’t do that with the screen is that your child slowly has exposure to negative emotions. You might hop in the shower for five minutes, or less really, with an infant before you come out, and then it gets a little bit longer over time. And so, one thing that happens is your kid learns that they’re okay without being entertained and that it might actually be really enjoyable to direct their own attention and to get involved in some things.

Encourage Independent Play

Now, when kids are younger, I do recommend having maybe some “special toys.” So for us, they were in key areas: the showering area in the bathroom, in the kitchen, under the kitchen sink, where you keep toys that are really engaging and, “Hey, these are the toys that you get to explore and use when I’m cooking dinner.”  And so then there’s a level of excitement of like, “I get to play independently with these things while mom cooks dinner. It’s not about that mom’s not paying attention to me.” So again, it’s kind of that approach-goal thing, but for the child. And then when dinner is all done and you’re done cooking dinner and it’s time to eat together, “Okay, we’re gonna clean up these toys together, and tomorrow when we cook, or tomorrow when I take a shower, you’ll have access to these again,” and that helps them build that capacity for their self-directed attention.

Jessica: And how often do you rotate the toys in the special baskets so that they feel fresh?

Meghan: The bins that I’ve kept under the bathroom sink and under the kitchen sink, I honestly haven’t rotated as much as maybe would have been helpful, but they didn’t get sick of them. A lot of them are sort of, either were sensory bins that were saved for them, or Montessori-based toys, like Jobs, where they can put things in and out of stuff, or take things out of stuff, where they can build small things, that sort of thing. Then we have what we call the toy library, which is just a closet in the basement. And so, we keep a limited number of toys out, so as to not to overwhelm their attention and their sensory system, and then everything else stays in the toy library, and then we rotate those out.

And another thing that we keep in the toy library, what we call “by yourself bins,” which are large Tupperware bins that have things that they really can do by themselves. Again, a lot of sort of Montessori-based Jobs things, simple stickers that they can start to peel and work on, puffballs, all those sorts of things, but it will be a big bin, some books that may be really engaging with flaps in them, and things like that. If I have a longer period of time, a longer project that I have to do, or a longer phone call, that’s when I would pull out a “by yourself bin,” and they would just be thrilled, because it might have 5-10 items in it, that they can then take out and really explore and do all sorts of things with.

Keep Games, Books, and Toys in Your Car

Jessica: And then what does it look like when you’re on a road trip? If you’re in a car, I know what it looks like for us, and it’s just like piles of piles of heavy books, and it’s almost ridiculous how much stuff, physical stuff, that we have to bring to not have screens made available to our kids during a trip. Does screen-free mean more stuff?

Meghan: I think for under-fives, it definitely does. The part of the selling feature of like, “Get this tablet for your kid,” is it’s the only thing you have to bring it anywhere. They’ll have books on it and they’ll have games and they’ll have access to endless online streaming content. And a book is just one book, so I think I constantly have to balance myself. One, I think, yes, an honest answer is, it does include more stuff. We bring a big bin of heavy books with us, any time we go on a road job, that probably has 30-40 books in it. That’s way more than a tablet. And then plus all sorts of little toys and things to keep them busy. And then, on the other hand, I have to keep some balance for myself, because sometimes they’ll play with one thing for two hours. We do an eight-hour road trip several times a year, so they’re pretty accustomed to riding in the car, and sometimes they don’t get to all that stuff that I’ve packed. And so some of it is my own worry as a parent of like, “What are they gonna do to keep themselves busy,” and I have to remind myself like, “They will keep themselves busy with a scarf and a piece of paper and a marker,” right. And so sometimes less is more. So I think the honest answer is yes, and also I try to keep myself in balance and recognize that that less can be more too.

Does Screen Time Negatively Impact Children?

Jessica: What does the science tell us about the effects of screen time on kids? Why go to all this trouble?

Meghan: Yeah, it would be just easier. Right? So I’m really into acronyms, so I have an acronym for that too, and I call it SWAAT the screen time, which stands for, Sleep, Weight, Aggression, Attention, and Talking. And so here I’m really distilling the science for kids under the age of five. If we were talking about older kids or teenagers, we would include things like depression and anxiety in there. But for younger kids, we’re talking about the basics like sleep, weight, attention.

Screen Time Affects Attention Span

Attention is the one that I was really interested in as a psychologist. So, quite a few studies showing that especially children’s programming that has rapid screen shifts, that means it switches perspective quite quickly, that that has an impact on their ability for sustained attention at school age. So, how much of these rapid screen shifting shows they’re watching at age three, can impact their sustained attention at age seven. The idea being there that they become pre-programmed to expect rapidly-changing stimulation, and then the real world is actually quite a bit slower, and so their attention wanes more quickly.

Jessica: You know, it does make sense. It really is intuitive. You do see so many screens, so many frames flashing now in programming for children. I mean it’s just changed so much from when the original Disney movies to now, the number of frames and the speed at which things are changing is so quick, and it just feels so different from real life. The difference I’ve read, it creates this kind of like, you get this dopamine response, then you kind of expect that same dopamine response in the real world. Is that kinda how it works?

Meghan: Yeah, and the research on attention is really good too. So sometimes we see research and we’re looking at overall screen time and overall sleep time, and we’re thinking, well, there could be other things affecting those two things, what we call third variables. But attention is one of the things that has also had experimental research, so we bring children into the labs and we have them either play with blocks or watch a manipulated show so that the screen shifts are really slow, or a standard show with typically-rapid shifting screens, designed for children, and then we ask them to do a task afterward that measures they’re sustained attention. And that research shows that those programs designed for children result in immediately worse performance on the cognitive task. So, it’s really quite clear that the screens are impacting children’s ability to pay attention both in the short-term and in the long-term.

Screen Time Affects Language Skills

Jessica: Yeah, it really resonates. And then, tell me about Talking.

Meghan: Yeah, Talking is one I was really interested in too because I was one of those moms that really wanted to hear what my kid had to say. My first daughter was very fussy, and so sometimes it was like, “I don’t know what you want, and I wish that we could communicate,” and so anything that was going to make it… Her speech more delayed, it’s something that I wasn’t interested in, right. And so, some really good research on that too. Recently a study that showed for each 30-minute increase that an infant, so we’re talking like 12-24 months, had with a handheld device, regardless of what they were doing it, just like the total time with a handheld device, like mom’s phone or a tablet, that they were 50% more likely to be diagnosed with a production delay, a speech delay. And so, we’re seeing all sorts of speech delays that are increasing, since screen time has increased among these youngest viewers. And the thought there is, and experimental research shows really well, that kids don’t learn language from screens, prior to age two. They simply don’t, and when we have screens on, we as the adults are not talking.

So kids learn language from us talking, whether we’re talking to them in infant-directed speech, or whether we’re talking to somebody around us. They are programmed to pick up on that language, and they simply don’t do it with screens. That was originally what Baby Einstein’s idea was, we’ll teach them all this language through these videos, and it just… Experimental research study after experimental research study shows they do not learn the language. Interestingly, even though the parents might think they do. So the parents say, “Oh, they love this video, they’re so entranced by it, it’s great,” but then when they test them, they don’t perform any better than chance on the target words that were included in the video.

Is FaceTime Harmful for Toddlers?

Jessica: So then, what about talking to grandparents over, or friends over FaceTime? Does that count as regular screen time? And does it have the same impact on language, that you were just describing?

Meghan: Yeah, there’s really interesting research with that too. So, the American Academy of Pediatrics in their updated statement, which distills all the research and is really based on good science, says no screen time prior to 18 months, and at 18 months is when kids seem to be able to benefit from the back-and-forth exchange that occurs in FaceTime or Skyping or Zooming or whatever. And so they’ve also tested this, so this program that I’m gonna talk about is a little bit dated, but any parent who’s ever watched Dora The Explorer, Dora The Explorer will ask you questions, right, and she’ll say, “What do we say? What do we say when we need to know where to go,” or something like that, and the answer’s “map,” and then she stares at with these blinking eyes and the thought is that the kid is saying “map.” Well, the reason why they created the program like that is thinking that this back-and-forth interaction would be better for speech. And so, they’ve done some really good lab studies where they look at this, and it isn’t if it’s pre-recorded.

The children, babies are very, very smart, they come to as very, very smart, they’re very dependent, and they can tell the difference. They know that it isn’t true interaction and that what they say doesn’t make a difference. However, if they’re FaceTiming or Skyping with grandparents, it is real-time back-and-forth interaction and the grandparents are saying things that are relevant to the child and they’re responding to the child. And so, there’s no negative effect shown if you’re Skyping with relatives over the age of 18 months. In fact, they can learn things like songs and language and how grandpa draws a horse or those sorts of things.

Jessica: That’s so interesting and a relief because we want to be able to have screens. Screens are also useful in our lives in some ways.

Meghan: Absolutely.

How Can Parents Reduce Screen Time for Children Who Are Using Them?

Jessica: In a lot of ways actually. So what do we do if, for example, my 5-year-old was just begging for Peppa Pig. What about parents who are already have introduced screens. How do you help them? Sort of tell me about that arc. Do they come to you at what stage in their parenting and in their experience with their children? What does that look like? And then how do you help them, I guess, wean from screens?

Meghan: I think we have–I’d like to do a survey of all of our followers and subscribers, but from the messages and the calls that I get, it seems like we’re broken into two camps. One is people who had their baby, they read the American Academy of Pediatrics statement, and they’ve decided, “We’re gonna be screen-free until age two or until age five,” or whatever they determine. And so we have these people who kind of came to us from the beginning that way. And then we have other people who, much like most other people in society, have used screens a little bit here and there, and for their particular child, because every child is different, it has become problematic. That the child is asking for it more and more, that they’re noticing on days when they have more screen time, they’re more fussy, they are less capable of entertaining themselves, and it seems to be this slippery slope for them, which is part and parcel to the design of programming for children now, but that’s another issue.

And so those parents come to us when they start searching for things related to their toddlers and screen time. And a subset of those parents are anxious that they have done some lasting damage to their child’s brain with the screen time, and I really, really feel for those parents and you know what, I think that we are all doing little experiments with a sample of one or two or three, however many kids we have, and it’s okay to change the rules, and I do that all the time, not so much about screen time.

But another thing that I’m really particular about is bedtime. And so sometimes it’ll seem like, well, we’re not tired yet, we need to stay up later, or my kids like to share a room so they’ll sleep together, which can cause problems. And then sometimes, I have to reel back in and say like, “You know what, we thought that you guys could stay up a little bit later, but everybody’s miserable, so you can’t.” So I think we have the authority as parents. We do have the authority as parents to recognize that something’s not good for our kids and to make a change.

What Does Less Screen Consumption Look Like?

Jessica: And then so what does that change look like?

Meghan: So, I think that if your children are very young, so if we’re talking about under the age of three, and you’ve decided that they have a problematic relationship with screens. You see negative behavior or inability to entertain themselves without it, I think it’s very helpful to go cold turkey for a while, meaning just cut the screens for a week, two weeks, three weeks maybe, and see how they regulate, but support them in that. So that would be a time where you might wanna spend a little additional time thinking of what are those things they might do during the normal times when they would have watched screens, if it’s showering or cooking or when they wake up, but before they go to bed, how can I help them with this transition. When you’ve got older kids, so, four, five up, depending on the maturity level of the child, I think at that point, you have an idea where you’re going with a rule change in your house, but you bring them along and encourage them to generate solutions. Should we have a week where we come up with really fun things that we want to do, and we don’t do any screens that week? Or how would you like to slowly cut down? What’s our goal? What do we wanna get to? What problems do you notice when we’re watching too much TV or when we’re watching too many shows, or playing too many games? And how could we eliminate some of those? So, it depends on the child’s age that you’re trying to cut back the habit with.

Jessica: And so, for younger children, what happens if they throw a fit? If they’re just like, “Oh,” really, really want. It feels like the want for screens is so deep, and so intense for some of our kids, that I’m just curious, what does that really look like for a 2, 3-year-old, if you’re wanting to say, “Okay, let’s go cold turkey, we’re gonna set a new rule, we really feel inspired to make this change.” So talk to me a little bit more about the specifics of what that looks like.

Meghan: So one, I have a great deal of empathy for those kids, I was the co-author to a letter to the American Psychological Association a year ago, asking them to take a stand on persuasive design, which is the science behind making the programming, the games, and the television shows for children to be really engaging. To give children those little dopamine hits, to make it really hard for them to turn off, and those things can be really simple, like when your kid watches YouTube videos, the next video continually plays, and it sends them down this tunnel of never-ending videos. I don’t know if they would ever end it, right. And so, there’s no natural stop to a program, which is not the way it was when you were a kid, right. Sesame Street or whatever you were watching ended, and if it was noon on a Saturday, something came on that was totally uninteresting, so you got outside, where you started playing. So, they don’t have any of these natural stops.

Also, your TV was in your living room, and it didn’t come with you in the car, or to the doctor’s office or anything like that. And so there were these natural boundaries around it that children don’t have now. And children do really well with concrete boundaries, and these sort of abstract or ambiguous boundaries are more difficult for them to grasp. Plus, the programming is made so that they keep the eyeballs of your child and they compete with the other programs that are trying to get your children’s eyeballs.

So, one, have a great deal of empathy for your child if they’re having a fit, and that’s why I say you want to support them through this. Scaffold their attention-building. If they’ve had a really intense screen habit, maybe they don’t know how to deal with boredom yet.  Maybe they don’t know how to relax and calm down without the screen, and so you need to present this menu of options. Normally we watch screens now, so you could calm down, we’d watch a TV show at the end of the day. But instead, we could color together, or we could read together, or we could listen to music together.And so you wanna say, “Hey, I know this is something we used to do, and it’s hard.” While at the same time, standing firm. It’s okay if your child protests something that you’re doing that you know is good for them, right.

Bedtime is another common example here, we all put our kids to bed at a certain time because we know they’re going to be miserable the next day, if not. And they might protest that, but we stand firm in the fact that it’s time for bed, you’re really tired, we need to calm down and go to sleep. So, you can stand firm, while also being empathetic and providing some support to them.

And so, I would say, look at your kid, evaluate your child and their screen habits, and allow yourself to follow your intuition a little bit about what you feel they need.

Jessica: That’s so helpful. Thank you so much for being here with us.

Meghan: Thank you for having me.

3 Episode Takeaways for Parents

Navigating screen time is tricky for so many of us, including me. Here are some of Meghan’s tips:

1. Avoid Using Screens to Distract a Child From Negative Emotions

Whether it be boredom, anger, or frustration. When you don’t distract them, your child has gradual exposure to those emotions, and this strengthens their ability to respond to those negative emotions creatively and constructively. Set aside some activities, toys, or books that come out only when you need them to engage in self-directed play.

2. You Don’t Have to Cut Out All Screen Time

If Zoom and FaceTime are a part of your toddler’s routine, here’s some good news: There are no negative effects shown from screen time with loved ones. That back-and-forth exchange is the secret sauce to positive brain wiring.

3. If Screens Are Becoming Problematic in Your Home, It’s Ok to Change the Rules

With young children, try going cold turkey. But support them in that transition by reintroducing toys that have been out of circulation for a while — even a new package of markers can feel fresh and fun. Explain to your toddler: “I made a mistake, and it is now clear to me that we need to take a break from screens.” Remember, recognizing that something is not good for our kids and making a change is one of our fundamental roles as parents!

If you have older children, involve them in the conversation: What are some signs that we may be spending too much time in front of a screen? How could we make some changes?

Screens are addictive. It’s natural for your child to protest having screens taken away. Help them redirect. 

You can find more alternatives to screen time on the Lovevery blog at lovevery.com.


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Kate Garlinge

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Posted in: 12 - 48 Months, Behavior, Playtime, Screentime & Technology, Managing Emotions, Play & Activities

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