What Exactly Is “Quality” Children’s Programming?


screen time guidelines for children

Screen time for kids is a hot topic. My personal choice is to default to the American Academy of Pediatric’s guidelines. In a nutshell, here they are.

  • No screen time before ages 18-24 months
  • Coview programming
  • Interact with the content (point things out, ask your child questions, etc)
  • Maximum one hour of viewing per day
  • Show only high quality programming

Mostly, the guidelines are pretty clear. There is a set age limit to begin and a daily time limit. We’re supposed to watch together (I know you wanted to cook dinner) and make comments as we watch. But what about “high quality programming”? What counts as good and what doesn’t? 

The AAP gives a vague example and not much explanation when it comes to what is considered high quality programming. I’ve taken a deeper look into this, and here’s what I’ve learned:

Shorter Durations Are Better

Twenty minutes at a time is ideal. A young child’s attention span lasts about twenty minutes. After the attention span is complete, she may still be captivated by the program, but no learning occurs. 

Kids who continue to watch after their attention span expires are experiencing a dopamine rush, but they aren’t actually mentally connected to the content anymore. Awful as it sounds, they’re just kind of “high.” 

Many children’s programs last 25 minutes, so showing one program in the afternoon and one in the evening (or just showing one per day) will better support learning than two in a row. 

Animation Speed Should Be Slow

Slow animation—fewer frames per second—is preferable. Fast animation over-stimulates the brain and causes sleep disturbances.

Avoid Watching Before Bedtime

Screen time too close to bedtime causes sleep disturbances. It’s best to have a two-hour window of screen-free time before bedtime.

Examples of High Quality Programming

My two favorites are Dora the Explorer and Daniel Tiger

Dora is great because it incorporates Spanish language and sequencing. Each episode follows a map’s directions towards a destination and the characters use their wits to beat the obstacles they encounter along the way. 

It’s also interactive, prompting its watchers to respond in both English and Spanish. Best of all, the characters encourage the children watching to stand up and move or jump along the way. Sitting and passively watching is one of TV’s downsides, and Dora does a great job countering this!

Daniel Tiger is a spin-off of the classic Mr. Rogers show that many of us grew up watching. Like Mr. Rogers, DT encourages good manners and addresses common emotional issues. Each episode focuses on a certain skill or life experience—like waiting your turn or visiting the doctor. 

Each episode also has a little “jingle” that works magically in real life. Whenever my toddler rushes and gets frustrated, I sing “Sometimes it’s good to go slooooow.” Tantrum evaded. And parents everywhere get their little ones to the toilet with Daniel Tiger’s potty song.  

Daniel Tiger helps parents too, by modeling ways parents can respond to kids. After watching, you’ll find yourself joyfully telling your kids to choose one more thing before you go instead of dragging them out of the park screaming. I seriously wanted to be Mom Tiger; she always knows what to say. 

A Final Tip

I’ll leave you with a piece of advice I’m glad I got: Instead of “resorting” to screen time when your kids are super fussy, schedule it into your day or week in a predictable way. Screen time should be a tool you use intentionally, not a last resort whenever you get overwhelmed. Personally, I wrote it into our schedule before dinnertime. This helps everyone in the home get some downtime before moving into the evening routine. 

Happy Watching! (you know…assuming you follow that co-viewing rule)



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