My toddler pleads for more time on my phone, again—and I give in, again. I think of all the other parents who do it, too, especially when we really need it. In the grocery store line, out to dinner, in the waiting room and now, at home, because we’re practicing social distancing together and I need a few minutes to myself. But I’m torn between needing them to be calm so I can relax and worrying that giving in to this obsession too often and for too long is causing harm.
Turns out, it’s natural for toddlers to be obsessed with the phone. And as much as we worry about it, there are benefits.
So why are they obsessed?
About age two, a toddler’s brain has developed enough for them to realize that they are a separate person from their parents and caregivers. With this awareness, they have a sense of control that enables them to become more independent. One way toddlers express their newfound independence and control is through choices (like insisting on the blue cup, not the purple one). Your phone scratches both these itches at the same—they can be autonomous when they are on your phone while making their own decisions about what they see and interact with.
Plus, around the same time, a toddler’s attention span has expanded, allowing them to stay still long enough to focus on a bigger variety of activities for a longer period of time—about 3 to 5 minutes per year of their age. This ability to focus and pay attention makes them enjoy watching the same thing over and over again until they really understand it. Since it can be hard to learn so many things every day, repetition can also contribute to their sense of security because they are able to predict (control) their world, which is comforting.
But is your toddler on your phone too much? Time limits can be debated. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends one hour per day of high-quality content for kids aged two to five. But in another study on screen use from the UK’s National Survey of Children’s Health, researchers found that their wellbeing—caregiver attachment, resilience, curiosity, and mood—was not negatively affected by the amount of phone use. This means that the 1-hour limit is meant to be a guideline for most families on most days, but not an ironclad rule—especially during times like these.
Here are a few things to keep in mind so you can worry less, mama:
- Make sure what your toddler is looking at on your phone aligns with their current interests, abilities and skills.
- Monitor that content is age-appropriate and encourages them to actively engage with you or someone else for social engagement.
- Ask questions and make descriptions and connections to the real world to help them learn if you are enjoying an app together.
- Have them move around at least as much as they are on your phone each day so that they explore and use all their senses and make friends.
- Remember phones provide an opportunity to become proficient in tech while learning.
- Just like any other type of play, pay attention to what they’re seeing and what they’re figuring out.
Bottom line: If you need to give them more screen time right now, don’t stress. Embrace their obsession with your phone as a tool for learning to prepare them for the future—and as comfort when some days are overwhelming. And you get a well-deserved break, mama.