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TV for toddlers: Set limits, make good choices

Media can have a big impact on kids, but so can parents. By guiding kids' choices early in life, you can help make sure that TV, movies and other media don't have a negative influence on them.

They can educate, entertain and bring the world into your living room. But the same things that make TV and movies so fun and exciting also can make these and other media sources harmful for children.

For example, you might not want your child exposed to some of the messages found on TV or in movies. These might include junk food ads, the idea that cool people smoke or the idea that violence is an easy way to deal with conflict.

And while TV might keep your child busy, that tube time could come at the expense of other, more important activities. For example, it might be better for your child to use that time being active or visiting with family and friends.

Used the right way, visual media are useful. But you have to help your children develop good viewing habits. And you have to do it early: Media can begin to sway kids at a very young age.

What you can do

To help make your child's media experiences positive, the American Academy of Pediatrics offers these tips:

Know when. Much of a child's brain develops in the first two years of life. That's when he or she learns a good deal of language and social skills. Time spent in front of a TV can take away from these important activities. For children younger than 18 months, video chatting is OK, but otherwise avoid screen time for kids this young. From 18 to 24 months, you can introduce limited, high-quality content. But always watch it together. 

Set limits. For kids age 2 to 5 years, limit screen time to one hour a day. Choose high-quality, educational content. And keep watching together. Don't allow TV sets, video games or computers in your child's bedroom.

Be choosy. Avoid turning on the TV and watching whatever is on. Instead, plan out good shows for your child to watch. Look at TV listings and TV ratings to help you select the right shows for your child's age.

A ratings system exists for all programs except news and sports shows. The ratings show up on the screen at the start of each program. You may also find ratings in your program guide.

To learn more about the ratings system and about tools that can help you block certain shows from your TV, visit the FCC's V-Chip page.

Use the same care when choosing movies—both rentals and those in the theater—and video and computer games. Look at ratings and read reviews. And if you have any question about whether something is right for your child, check it out for yourself before letting your child see it.

Watch together. Take part in your child's TV, movie, video game and computer time, whenever possible. Then talk about what you see and hear. This is especially vital while your child is very young and can't tell the difference between shows, commercials, cartoons and reality.

Be aware that even simply seeing or hearing the news may upset your child. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says that you may need to assure your little one, in simple words, that you will keep him or her safe.

Offer options. Make sure your kids have plenty of ways to entertain themselves other than sitting in front of some type of screen. Encourage them to play, be active or color, for instance. Or take time to read together.

Set an example. Kids learn by watching you. So be a role model. Limit your own screen time, and be choosy about the things you watch.

Your role is key

Remember, even though media can have a big impact on your child, you can have the most influence. Be involved in your child's choices—from the very beginning. And if you have questions about how best to help guide your son or daughter, talk to his or her doctor.

Reviewed 11/9/2023

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