Does Your Toddler Need a Screen-Time Fast?

Does Your Toddler Need a Screen-Time Fast?

It’s 5 p.m. and you have 30 minutes to get dinner on the table. Your 3-year-old makes it clear she wants to play, but you can’t cook and build legos at the same time. You need her distracted. Do you give her a few more minutes of screen-time? Afterall, what’s the harm? 

It’s safe to say that screens are a part of our everyday lives, but if you’ve wondered how to find balance, this blog post is for you.

LinnieLou interviewed two experts to help you get to the bottom of screen time once and for all: Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley, the author of "Reset Your Child's Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time, "⁠ as well as ⁠ Zainab Lakdawala a parenting mentor, counselor, and early childhood educator.⁠

Keep reading to learn how screens affect kids’ brains, screen time guidelines, how to find balance, and when to cut them out completely.

Screen-time and Your Child’s Brain

Dr. Dunckley is a psychiatrist, author, and screen-time expert who coined a syndrome for the health effects associated with screen-time.

“Screen-time affects our brains and bodies at multiple levels, manifesting in various mental health symptoms related to mood, anxiety, cognition, and behavior,” she wrote in her book. “Because the effects of screen-time are complicated and diverse, I’ve found it helpful to conceptualize the constellation of common phenomena as a syndrome - what I call Electronic Screen Syndrome.

For this reason, Dr. Dunckley takes a conservaitve approach to screens.

“When it comes to screen-time and kids, less is more,” she said. “Screens are associated with a multitude of psychiatric, cognitive, behavioral, developmental, and physical health issues, and the effects are cumulative.”

Zainab said, however, screens, in and of themselves, aren’t bad. 

“Our world, as we know now, has become completely digital, and so we have to be aware that we are raising a generation that is going to depend on screens,” she said. “The main concern and focus should be on the quality, the quantity, and the level of engagement that the caregivers have with the child in relation to screens.”

Why Setting Limits is Important

Both experts agree screen-time limits are crucial–especially in young children.

“A child’s mind is growing at a very fast pace,” Zainab said. “They are learning new concepts and are understanding how the world works. Continuous exposure to passive screen-time can lead to lower creativity and imagination.”

Dr. Dunckley said there’s a reason kids can’t regulate their screen use themselves. 

“In my experience, virtually all children and teens need limits set for them when it comes to screen time,” Dunckley said. “The frontal cortex, which governs self-discipline, isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties, so it’s unrealistic to expect children or teens - or even young adults - to manage screens on their own.”

Screen-Time By The Age

According to The American Association of Pediatrics, parents should keep these guidelines in mind:

  • “For children younger than 18 months, discourage use of screen media other than video chatting.
  • For parents of children 18-24 months who want to introduce digital media, select high-quality programming/apps and use media together with children.
  • For children 2-5 years, limit screen use to one hour a day of high-quality programming, and co-view with children.”

The Academy also recommends parents avoid using media as the only way to calm your child; keep mealtimes and parent-child playtimes screen-free; and stop screen usage an hour before bedtime. 

Dr. Dunckley said parents of toddlers should be aware of the negative effects of too much screen time.

“For toddlers, these effects can translate into delays in language and motor skills, reduced creativity, immature or disorganized behaviors, and irritable moods,” she said. “Excessive tantrums and defiance are nearly universal in toddlers with too much screen time.”

Finding Balance

Zainab said parents should keep three things in mind when it comes to screen-time.

Quality: What content are they watching or interacting with? “Allow screens in the common areas of the house and not behind closed doors,” Zainab said.

Quantity: Break screen-time up throughout the day. “For example, you can break an hour into two, 30 minute brackets,” she said.

Engagement: Are you engaging with your kids during screen time? “The next time they are watching something, sit beside them, talk with them about what’s going on, what are the characters feeling, and so on,” she said.

Screen-Time Red Flags

Dunckley said to look for these red-flags as it relates to your child’s behavior and his or her screen use:

  • Academic or learning struggles
  • Mood swings or frequent tantrums
  • Problematic social behavior, such as poor eye contact, being a “sore loser” on the playground, or extreme defiance with adults
  • Addictive behavior, such as lack of interest in screen-free activities or excessive preoccupation with getting on a device

How to Cut Out Screens

Dr. Dunckley believes these red flags mean parents should consider taking a three-week screen fast. 

“This helps reset the nervous system: reward pathways become sensitized, the body clock resynchronizes, and stress hormones normalize, all of which facilitate deep rest. This, in turn, improves mood regulation, focus, motivation, and social reciprocity,” she said.

She said that, within days, kids who are overly sensitive to screens stop obsessing over their next screen time session and instead play differently, spend more time outdoors, and demonstrate longer attention spans.

“They even become kinder with siblings and playmates! These are manifestations of the brain’s frontal lobe reawakening, and the child literally seems to blossom,” she said.

If a screen fast seems daunting - if not impossible - Dr. Dunckley said to educate yourself on how screen time can affect your child’s brain; brainstorm activities you can do with your child during the screen fast; and read or listen to testimonials from families who have had screen-fast success.

“Remember: this is an act of love. Truly, most parents feel much closer to their child and are enjoying the relationship on a deeper level,” she said.

And post-screen fast?

In her book, Dr. Dunckley offers ways for families to develop healthier relationships with screens.

“If we all were more aware that screen-time stresses the brain, and we developed healthier practices with our increasing array of technological devices, then all of us would enjoy healthier lifestyles, and we would maximize the potential of all children while protecting those most vulnerable,” she wrote. 

To Sum It Up

  • According to Dr. Dunckley, screen-time affects our brains and bodies at multiple levels, manifesting in various mental health symptoms related to mood, anxiety, cognition, and behavior.
  • Children have a hard time self-regulating their screen use because the frontal cortex, which governs self-discipline, isn’t fully developed until the mid-twenties.
  • Children younger than 18 months old should have little to no screen time, and toddlers between the ages of 2  and 5 should have no more than one hour a day according to the AAP.
  • Zainab said parents should keep three things in mind when it comes to both passive and interactive screen-time: quality, quantity, and engagement. 
  • Struggles with learning, mood swings and frequent tantrums; problematic social behavior, and addictive behavior are all signs that parents should consider a three-week screen fast, said Dr. Dunckley.

Zainab offered this advice for parents who might feel guilty about their kids’ screen use: “First and foremost, no matter what, you are an amazing parent,” she said. “Don’t judge yourself or your parenting based on the screen-time your kids have. Balance is the aim, not perfection.”

You can learn more about Dr. Dunckley on her website: Learn more about Zainab here:

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