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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The Power of Play
- How to Get the Most Out of Family Dinners
- Back-to-School: Play and Academic Success
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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