My Toddler Was Addicted to TV

Image source: thinkstock
Image source: thinkstock

I’m a big believer in evidence-based parenting and generally a strict follower of the AAP recommendations.

But there was one recommendation that my husband and I knowingly ignored on a daily basis: When my son Eli was about 9 months old, we started letting him watch Sesame Street.

It was partially because we thought he’d enjoy it and partially because I was exclusively pumping at the the time and needed a way to distract him in the mornings so I could pump. But when I weaned him at a year, we didn’t turn off the TV.

At first, we were careful to limit Eli’s TV-watching to an hour a day (except when sick) and only a few select shows. But over time, we got a little lazy. One hour turned into two (Disney movies, mostly), occasionally three – and it was happening several times a week. I would like to blame this on the struggles of early pregnancy, but the truth is, it was lazy parenting. Before we knew it, our 2-year-old was solidly addicted to TV and we had a major uphill battle to fight.

The AAP recommendation is based on several studies, which show that young children who are allowed “screen time,” including TV or other electronics, before age 2 demonstrate poorer performance in school than their peers who don’t have the same exposure. In one study from 2005, researchers found that for every hour of television-watching before age 3, there were significant decreases in scores on reading comprehension and memory assessments. Another study found that children who watched television at ages 1 and 3 were more likely to have issues with hyperactivity at age 7.

I can’t explain why we weren’t concerned about these things at first. I think we convinced ourselves that Eli’s TV-watching was a temporary thing and wouldn’t have long-term consequences. But in the course of a year, we saw him become increasingly obsessed. Elmo was the first thing he asked for in the morning and when we wouldn’t let him watch more throughout the day, it resulted in multiple tantrums. He vastly preferred watching TV to playing with any of his toys, which is something we never anticipated or wanted.

So we took action. For the past few months, we’ve been working on reducing Eli’s screen time to an hour or less per day, which has been quite a struggle. The first step was to be very firm with our limits. Right now, Eli can watch one episode of Sesame Street a day — no other TV, no other movies. If he plays on our iPad (he likes to read a few children’s books on it), that counts as part of his TV time, so his total screen time is an hour a day.

This is obviously much, much easier said than done with a passionate 2-year-old.

When he starts asking for TV, we usually try to engage him with his toys, which I know seems like a pretty basic idea. I can’t tell you how often this doesn’t work — the boy likes his TV and does not want to be kept from it.

Our second step, depending upon time of day, is to go outside. We have a great patio with all kinds of toys and sometimes that will divert his attention. This strategy has the added benefit of getting him more active, which is important considering how many children choose screen time over exercise. Other times we’ll go to the park or for a walk. If none of that works, we just ride the impending tantrum out.

We’ve found that being very strict with what he’s watching (only age-appropriate shows that are somewhat educational) as well as how much he’s watching is gradually decreasing his requests for screen time. He’s learning that if he wants to watch Sesame Street when he wakes up, it means he can’t watch it later in the day. He’s more willing to play independently with his toys and now he will request to go outside much more often.

It’s like we’re slowly getting our active and playful 2-year-old back, and gradually losing the screen-addicted child who once lived here.

We are expecting our second child in a few months, and I can assure you that we will not make the same mistake twice. It’s important to us that our children can play on their own and with other children, that they stay active instead of sitting inside in front of a screen, and that their academic skills and attention span don’t suffer.

Screen time didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but we’ve come to realize that any potential educational benefits (as well as the entertainment value, just weren’t worth the consequences to our son’s development and overall attitude. I wish I could go back in time to that first day I clicked on Sesame Street and put the remote right back down, but I can’t. All we can do is slowly undo the potential damage we’ve done and take this lesson forward for our other children.

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