Raising Happiness

 

How much “screen time” is too much?

September 22, 2008 | The Main Dish | 28 comments


When I was pregnant with Fiona, my friends, all childless themselves, thought it would be funny to write an advice book for my husband and I. (No one knew that I would, ironically, go on to be someone who routinely gives parenting advice.) They each wrote entries about the things they thought their own parents did well. My buddy Scott—who happens to be smart, funny, AND kind—detailed all the ways that watching "too much TV" as a child has benefited him in later life. Though a knowledge of 1970's popular culture will only take you so far, I made a mental note to let my kids watch as much as they wanted.

But then I found out that you the American Academy of Pediatrics adamantly recommends that parents not let their children watch any TV until they are at least two years old, not even if the tired mommy really wants to take a shower. Being something of a rule-follower, Fiona didn't know the word for TV until her second birthday, when she promptly became a Sesame Street and Blues Clues junkie. I conveniently forgot about the AAP recommendation with Molly; it seemed too hard to cut TV out altogether.

Is that bad?

I certainly wasn't alone in letting my baby watch TV. American children spend 2 to 5 hours a day watching television, on average. 59% of children younger than two—who aren't supposed to be watching any—watch an average of 1.3 hours of television daily.

It turns out that a very large number of studies have reported harmful effects from children's television viewing, including worse performance in school, obesity, attention-span problems, aggression, sleep deprivation, requests for advertised foods, and eating fewer fruits and vegetables and more pizza, snack food, soda, and high-fat foods.

Even videos that claim to be beneficial—like the Baby Einstein video series—aren't good and may be bad. In one study, for example, for every hour per day spent watching such videos, children understood an average of six to eight fewer words than did those of the same age who did not watch them—a 17-percentile drop in vocabulary.

On the other hand, video games don't necessarily deserve their bad rap. They can be a great way to socialize and connect with friends (especially for boys). And video games can actually facilitate, rather than discourage, physical play. Boys who play sports video games, for example, are actually much more likely to play those games in real life—they use the video games to master new moves, and then they go out and practice in real life.

7 Things to Keep in Mind When the Electronic Babysitter is Getting a Lot of Play

  1. Television brings little or no benefits, but it replaces activities that do make kids happier, healthier, and smarter. The more kids watch TV, the less time they tend to spend with their parents and siblings, the less time they spend doing homework (for 7-12 year olds), and the less time they spend in creative play (especially in children younger than 5). For very young children (less than 3), time spent watching TV replaces activities children need for proper brain development, particularly interaction with their caregivers.

  2. On the other hand, research has shown that playing video games doesn't usually take time away from sports or other active pursuits, and that game-playing teens spend the same amount of time with family and friends as non-gamers.

  3. Those pediatricians are right: infants and toddlers under 2 should not have any screen time. Early television exposure is associated with problems like ADD and ADHD, and decreased intelligence later in childhood.

  4. Computer use by children under the age of three is also not recommended. However, some research shows that computer programs, when combined with activities that facilitate what the programs are trying to teach, can help 3- to 4-year-olds develop a range of skills, including long-term memory, manual dexterity and verbal skills.

  5. Not all screen time is equal. In our homes we should ban the 20% of videogames that are rated as too violent or sexual for kids. Research shows a strong link between violent video game play and aggressive feelings and behaviors; violent video games trigger a part of the brain that drives people to act aggressively. And violent video game play measurably decreases helpful behaviors. Similarly, watching violent programming on TV is associated with a decrease in fantasy play among preschoolers and an increase in children's aggressiveness.

  6. Parents who watch television with their children and reinforce the educational aspects of shows can improve the quality of the learning experience for their children. Unfortunately, most kids usually don't watch educational television with their parents – they watch general audience programs targeted to adults rather than children.

  7. Although 68% of American kids do have televisions in their rooms, children with a TV in their bedroom are 1.3 times more likely to be overweight (even when they are physically active and/or participate in team sports).

Looks like my friend Scott, who watched TV every waking moment of his childhood but whose brain developed just fine, is an outlier. Our best bet is to turn off the boob tube and send the kids out to play.

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© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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References:

Strasburger, VC. (2001). Children and TV advertising: nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics. 22(3). 185-7.

Committee on Communications. (2006) Children, Adolescents, and Advertising: Organizational Principles to Guide and Define the Child Health Care System and/or Improve the Health of All Children. Pediatrics. 118(6). 2563-2569.

Aachei-Mejia, AM. Longacre, MR. Gibson, JJ. Beach, ML. Titus-Ernstoff, LT. Dalton, MA. (2007). Children with a TV in their bedroom at higher risk for being overweight. International Journal of Obesity. 31. 644-651.

Vanderwater, E. Beickham, D. Lee, June. (2008) Time Well Spent? Relating television Use to Children's Free-Time Activities. Pediatrics. 117(2).

Zimmerman, F.J. Christakis, D.A. Meltzoff, A.N. (2007) Television and DVD/Video Viewing in Children Younger Than 2 Years. (REPRINTED) ARCH PEDIATR ADOLESC MED. 161. 473-479.

Christakis, D.A. Zimmerman, F.J. DiGiuseppe, D.L. McCarthy, C.A. (2004) Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children. Pediatrics. 113. 708–713.

National Institute on Media and the Family. (2002). Fact Sheet Children And Advertising. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from http://www.mediafamily.org/facts/facts_childadv.shtml

Gantz, W. Schwartz, N. Angelini, J. Rideout, V. (2007). Food For Thought: Television food advertising to children in the United States. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/7618.pdf

Christakis , B . Ebel , F . Rivara , F . Zimmerman. (2004). Television, video, and computer game usage in children under 11 years of age. The Journal of Pediatrics. 145(5) , Pages 652 - 656.

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I was glad to hear that my tv rules seem to be in line with what you’re suggesting. My 8 year old boy is allowed no tv during the week. On the weekends, he can watch one movie, and either .5 hour of tv or video games (although when it’s video games, I sometimes let it go longer.) But it has been hard to find non-violent video games on the Internet or for Wii that are appropriately fun and challenging for him. They’re either too elementary or too dryly educational.  Any resources/websites anyone can suggest would be appreciated.

Roxanne Makasdjian | 11:05 am, September 23, 2008 | Link

 

“Research shows a strong link between violent video game play and aggressive feelings and behaviors; violent video games trigger a part of the brain that drives people to act aggressively. And violent video game play measurably decreases helpful behaviors.”
I would really like to see some external references to this research, something other than your claim.

tod | 1:12 pm, September 25, 2008 | Link

 

Dear Tod,
Thank you for the reminder — I’m sorry that we have been so tardy in posting the references to this article.  Some key studies are up in the References section now, and more will be posted in the next couple of days.
All of my articles are based on studies published in peer reviewed academic journals.
Thanks for your comment!

Christine

Christine Carter | 5:56 pm, October 1, 2008 | Link

 

Hey Roxanne,

I know hard it is to find games that are appropriate for your child. I don’t have kids but I’m a gamer and I have friends who have children who are just as concerned.

I would recommend this website which releases game reviews that are geared for parents

http://www.whattheyplay.com

these two sites have reviews and gameplay footage so you can see for yourself if the game is too violent or too dry.

http://www.gametrailers.com

http://www.gamespot.com
I hope you find this useful!

Shahram | 2:37 pm, October 3, 2008 | Link

 

My husband must be an outlier too!  The hard part is that with a TV addicted parent, it is hard for you kids to see that there are other alternatives.  But, really the hardest time for me to keep my kids off the TV is ages 3- 6 and in the summer.  Once they are in school full time and have after school activities, the temptation to spend all day in front of the TV is much much less.

inthefastlane | 1:15 pm, October 6, 2008 | Link

 

Roxanne- have you looked into some of the old-school games?  Old Sonic the hedgehog games are good, The Mario games (Supermario, etc.), Kirby, the Pikmin series… Sonic and Mario have been reissued for newer consol systems.
I have found that Nintendo has the best games for littler ones, although Playstation has the most games.
Christine-

In our house, the reason we’ll never get cable is that the advertising just makes us sick.  I’m curious about whether there’s a link between the ads and things like, oh, eating disorders, attention problems, etc.

ephelba | 2:57 pm, October 6, 2008 | Link

 

We just don’t buy cable service, and rent anything we want to see from Netflix (or get friends to Tivo it for us).  No commercials, and we get to monitor exactly what comes into the house.

Joyous | 5:02 pm, October 6, 2008 | Link

 

As I say to my screen- free daughter (now 7), every minute that you spend watching a video is a minute you’re NOT learning how to do things that are way more fun: then we list the things. If you can’t instantly list twenty things that are more fun to do than watch a screen, then you yourself probably watch too much tv.

jean | 5:30 pm, October 6, 2008 | Link

 

I will admit that my 2 yr old gets a lot of TV time.  3-4 hours a day.  But, most often we are watching it with him and it is always shows geared to his age group like Sesame Street or other shows on Sprout channel (except for one hour in the evenings when we sometimes watch a family oriented program like Extreme Home Makeover).  Many of the shows are recorded on the DVR so he rarely sees a commercial. When he loses interest in the TV we mute it or turn it off.  He also wants to interact with the computer a lot and so we let him play with toddler programs like Baby Giggles.  He is familiar now with the keyboard and is learning to use the mouse.  We use YouTube a lot to let him watch classic Sesame Street videos which he loves.  Because he is in love with the alphabet and numbers, the YouTube videos of people singing the alphabet and counting videos get a lot of play.

In a way I see these items as tools he needs to learn to use.  Skill sets that will help him later in life since our world is so technology oriented.

He may be one of the rare cases tho that can handle this since he shows no signs of ADD or ADHD or Autism.  He is 25 months old and knows his alphabet back and forth, can count to twenty back and forth and can already read 6 words by sight and spell his name. He is also trying hard to learn to write and asks us to write out letters and numbers so he can draw over them.  All advanced skills for his age.

Of course it is not all of this and nothing else, he adores going to the playground and really seems to enjoy his little playhouse.  He likes music toys and making noise as well as reading books,  drawing or painting.
Now, having said all that, I will say that one of our household rules is that the TV is off at bedtime.

Robin | 8:59 am, October 7, 2008 | Link

 

Thanks for the great site! I’m looking forward to exploring it further. The TV issue is far from resolved, in my reading of the research. I wrote a post on it, and it generated some interesting comments as well:
http://babyshrink.com/2008/09/if-my-baby-watches-tv-am-i-a-horrible-parent.html
Thanks for your hard work on the site! Aloha!

Dr. Heather | 10:59 am, October 7, 2008 | Link

 

I’d like to see the references for the tv causes adhd and low IQ statement. TV is a bone of contention in our house. sorry no capitals – baby in arms!

Mikhela | 3:24 am, October 31, 2008 | Link

 

Hi – just checking back as I’ve been worrying about causing ADHD and low IQ since reading this post (Point 3). I’m anti TV, my partner thinks that’s rubbish – I’d like to have some hard evidence. Any chance of the references for that? I followed Heather’s link, who doesn’t think it’s so bad, but still, you say there’s research…

Mikhela | 7:31 pm, November 11, 2008 | Link

 

We let our children, 6 and 8, watch almost no television.  However, I am somewhat concerned about this is affecting their social lives.  Many of their friends are talking about Hannah Montana and other shows and they can’t join in the conversation.  However, I find that not watching TV has forced them to be creative and imaginary and I don’t want them to start having their play revolve around TV shows.  Any thoughts?

Maggie | 8:56 pm, November 11, 2008 | Link

 

Mikhela,
There is, as you might imagine with such a controversial topic, a mountain of research on this stuff…and I am SO SORRY that the references aren’t up to date!  I didn’t realize it until just now…we’ll do our best to get some references up today.
EVERYTHING I write about is based on studies from peer-reviewed academic journals or books published, in general, by university presses.  The service I see myself as providing is that I actually do read the studies, and “translate” them for parents.  So my perspective will be a little different because of that; though I don’t actually disagree with Dr. Heather altogether (be real — a little screen time isn’t going to do irreparable damage, so long as it doesn’t become a habit) — my posting was based on academic studies (she refers to a website that, if I remember correctly, was created by PBS, which is going to have a different bias).
Thank you for your patience and the reminder to put up our references!
Christine

Christine Carter | 8:31 am, November 12, 2008 | Link

 

I’d love it if others can post their experiences with restricting screen time–in response to Maggie.  There isn’t any research that shows that restricting TV limits cultural literacy in a way that impacts social life (that I am aware of).  I watched almost no TV as a kid.  However, my mom would let us watch popular shows occasionally so that we knew what the other kids were talking about.  Although it is true that I couldn’t have much of a conversation about Three’s Company with my peers (and still can’t when those childhood conversations come up), I did learn to fill my free time with artistic pursuits, which I have to believe bring me joy in a way that TV never would.  So I still can’t really follow converations about the latest reality show (because I’m off painting when others are watching TV) but I can’t imagine that this has EVER limited my social life.
Christine

Christine Carter | 10:30 am, November 12, 2008 | Link

 

great info.  Our first little one is due in March and this is great stuff to know.  Thanks!

Blake | 9:46 am, November 15, 2008 | Link

 

Honestly, it just takes some not-so-common sense.  Life is all about balance, not choosing extremes. 
Personally, I have always enjoyed TV and movies (which isn’t going to change), but I don’t spend every waking, free moment in front of my TV.  I also enjoy my time snowboarding, doing projects around the house, exploring new things around Seattle, playing with my daughter, etc.
And I’m teaching the same thing to my 5 year old daughter.  It’s fine if she wants to watch a movie or TV show, but I don’t let her do that all day long.  And you know what, she’s just fine with that.  Sometimes she’ll ask to watch a movie and I tell her “no, why don’t you do x, y or z.”  9 times out of 10 she says “ok” and is off on her merry little way.
She doesn’t have ADD or ADHD.  She’s learning all of the age appropriate stuff (letters, numbers, writing, etc.).  She doesn’t whine about watching TV. 
She does understand that sometimes she gets to watch it and sometimes she doesn’t.  Balance.

tod hilton | 12:54 pm, November 26, 2008 | Link

 

My son gets 30 minutes of screen time on Saturday and on Sunday.  That said, I am deeply skeptical of the link between TV viewing and adhd.  I suspect the causality runs the other way — parents of adhd children may let their children watch more tv because adhd kids can be difficult.

Deb | 9:51 am, April 28, 2009 | Link

 

Hello,
How much parent with child playing time do you recommend (and what type of activities)?  I have a three year old daughter and I’m beginning to feel like I’m the “Entertainment Director.”  I think she is beginning to rely too much on me or my husband for play.  I want her to be able to grow her imagination and independence.  Also, it seems like she needs almost constant attention/reassurance from us in one way or another (Mommy look! or Mommy come here!) if she is playing alone.
I enjoy spending time with my daughter baking cookies, putting together puzzles, taking walks but I think I’m beginning to be on “play” overload.
Carrie Murray

Piqua, Ohio

Carrie Murray | 11:14 am, May 1, 2009 | Link

 

Hi everyone, I hope you don’t think I’m horrible…
My daughter 7 wakes up super grouchy(she sleeps from 8-6) and one of the things she does to wake up slowly is to watch one hour of TV (at this time I shower, make breakfast and lunches).
Any ideas of other wake up activites we could do instead of TV?

Natasha | 2:08 pm, May 1, 2009 | Link

 

In response to Carrie Murray — it sounds like your daughter is getting plenty of play time with you, which is great.  Why not try weaning her from playing with you all the time by introducing short periods of play-alone or play-with-a-friend time?  You can gradually increase that time until you reach a balance that works for both of you.
Best,

Christine

Christine Carter | 7:49 pm, May 1, 2009 | Link

 

Here is a link to a recent study about the association between TV time and health:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/mar/03/asthma-television-tv-children

Rebecca | 3:36 pm, May 4, 2009 | Link

 

@Rebecca – That article’s title is completely misleading and yet another example of sensationlistic journalism.  If you read further they admit there is no causal relationship between TV and asthma.  They used it as an “indicator of how sedentary the children’s lifestyles were” which isn’t necessarily the only or best measurement of a sedentary lifestyle.

tod | 4:04 pm, May 4, 2009 | Link

 

Just to be clear, the use of an “indicator” does not preclude a causal relationship between two variables. What makes the relationship between a sedentary lifestyle (as indicated by amount of time watching TV) and asthma an association and not causal is the omission of one of the 3 requirments for showing causation: the authors of the paper failed to show that the association between TV watching and asthma is not spurrious. They did satisfy the other 2 requirements: (1) They showed a direct association between a sedentary lifestyle and asthma and (2) their measure of the sedentary lifestyle temporally preceded the assessment of asthma.

Rebecca | 3:35 pm, May 8, 2009 | Link

 

The point is it’s a choice. You’re going to spend your leisure hours in some fashion which could be more or less benficial depending on the details of that choice. You could read, listen to radio or recordings, watch TV or videos, play games, work out or have sex. Within each of those options are sub-options that can cause the activity to be beneficial or neutral or damaging to varying degrees.
There is junk to read just as there is junk to watch.
One of the problems with macro statistical studies is they don’t always drill down into the details and sometimes confuse a positive correlation with a causal relationship.
If someone is intelligent, inquisitive and cultured by nature that will affect their viewing choices. Likewise, if someone is lazy, passive and boorish by nature that will affect viewing choices as well. Have a look at soldiers in the field with no TV or Radio allowed. Trust me you’ll find precious few who pack copies of War and Peace in their rucksack. Most of them will while away what leisure hours they have playing cards or telling crude jokes.
We had no TV for most of human history and for most of that history most people remained relatively ignorent and uncultured.
Is it TV’s fault for what they show or the individuals fault for what they watch?
Personally I’ve learned a lot from TV, as I’ve learned a lot from many media. That’s me though. Horse and water and all that. You could lock 1000 people in a library full of classics and math texts. That doesn’t mean they’ll be cultured math whizzes when you let them out.

Tim | 5:52 pm, July 20, 2009 | Link

 

Checking back in – after a year! and our children’s TV time is gradually increasing because I haven’t the energy to argue it out with my partner any more. Still can’t find the research links on this – my partner is a clinical psychologist so wants to see the peer reviewed journals, not ambit claims that TV causes ADHD.
Do you post the research links somewhere else on this site? I’ve tried googling “TV & ADHD & low IQ” but all the results are just unsubstantiated personal claims.

Mikhela | 7:27 pm, October 2, 2009 | Link

 

I disagree with this post and don’t think it’s based on good science.  (But let me say, I otherwise LOVE your blog and recommend it to friends constantly.)
Some TV is actually good for children.  Numerous studies have shown that certain types of TV programs (such as Dora and Blues Clues) improve children’s language and analytical skills.  However, other types of TV programs (stuff like Nemo – no educational components) are not helpful at all.
By far the best analysis of all the studies is done in the book Into the Minds of Babes by Lisa Guernsey.  I highly recommend this book for anyone concerned about their screen time.  I have no connection to the author except as a parent who really appreciated a science-based approach to TV.
Guernsey contradicts most of the above list – TV can increase IQ, there is little to no scientific basis for the recommendation against any TV for under 2s, etc.  You should definitely check the book out.

Maria | 5:05 pm, November 18, 2009 | Link

 

Although the article is several years old, the topic is always fresh, so here are some more thoughts…
While I LOVE seeing data-based guidelines, I’m also tuned in to what my son (now 7) is getting from the 1-2 hours of TV (TiVo) he watches. Right now he’s into Fetch! and The Electric Company. 
Fetch is terrific at showing actual kids doing actual things in the (somewhat) real world.  My son has learned about square dancing, court trials, wind tunnels, and all sorts of things he’d never have exposure to otherwise. He even went to a family dance with me after seeing it on Fetch (and had a great time), something he was very reluctant to do before.
The Electric Company has been equally effective at getting him interested in the decoding aspect of reading.  He identifies with the characters, and plays word games online to earn points for them.  His reading is improving, and his enthusiasm for reading is going up as his competence increases.  Yes, he reads books, too, but TV has been helping him ramp up decoding skills.
All this while maintaining a very active imagination and getting enough exercise.
So, although I understand the research, I feel like TV has been an asset to our son.

Jenny Robertson | 12:13 am, December 28, 2009 | Link

 
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