TV and Toddlers: What's the Impact?
Television is an important part of our culture. Next to the family, some experts believe that television can be the biggest influence on children. Even infants and toddlers have been swept up by popular TV shows marketed as "educational" programming. But are our babies really ready?
As child development experts continue to study how babies and young children grow and develop, the TV issue becomes even more complex. The need to weigh the pros and cons of children's TV habits has become more important.
A warning for parents
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that children under 2 shouldn't be allowed to watch television. That's because a child's brain grows so quickly during the first three years of life. Instead of TV, young children need to spend time with other kids and adults. They need time to play and explore. Watching TV doesn't give them this chance, experts say.
Babies learn best by interacting with people, says Susan L. Buttross, M.D., a specialist in developmental and behavioral pediatrics in Jackson, Miss. "During the first years of life, a baby's brain grows very rapidly," she says.
It's important for a child to have immediate feedback when learning a new word or a skill begins to develop. Parents can offer this through interactive play, Dr. Buttross says. "If parents are looking for a way to take a break, they should remember that you can place a child in a safe area with blocks, puzzles, and books and he will benefit much more from the visual and tactile stimulation of the activity. Babies can be 'media free' and develop wonderfully."
Lots of TV
The AAP's guidelines were triggered by the amount of TV children watch these days. The typical school-aged child watches four to six hours of TV a day. That number doesn't include time spent watching movies, listening to music, or watching music videos. It doesn't include time spent playing video or computer games, or surfing the Internet.
Child experts know that youngsters need relationships with kids and adults to grow and develop, says George Askew, M.D., a Boston pediatrician. "Television is a passive activity that does not provide two-way interaction or response, both of which are critical to young children," he says. "In order to learn nuances of language, how to relate to others, and to develop social skills, there must be an active give and take. I believe that the day-to-day, moment-to-moment connections with a responsive, nurturing, committed caregiver are far more enriching to a child's growth and development than any brand of media."
A 2005 study in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine reported that children who watch a lot of TV do more poorly in school.
Obesity is another factor tied to TV watching. Children who spend time watching TV instead of running, jumping, and playing are much more likely to be overweight. Children who watch TV see many commercials for unhealthy foods. They also tend to snack more while watching TV.
The real world perspective
The reality of today's world makes many parents flinch at the AAP's TV watching guidelines. Older siblings, busy work schedules, and exhausted stay-at-home moms and dads make it difficult to limit TV time. Most parents' attitudes about television are driven by their own experiences and reflect their parenting values.
Watch with your kids
Experts agree that television watching is ingrained in our everyday lives. But, they say that it's not merely a matter of watching television or not watching television, but how much and to what type of programs children are exposed. And most important, are parents taking the time to watch with their children?
"There are many talented people developing great programs that can help parents and teachers help their children learn," says Alan Simpson. Simpson is with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the nation's largest organization of early childhood educators dedicated to improving the quality of programs for children from birth through third grade.
"Children are learning from birth, and anything that piques their curiosity can help them learn new things," Simpson says. "If there is a program or video with quality music, colorful images, and good ideas, and a parent watches and interacts with the child during the program, then it can be a positive experience." The "harm" can come, he warns, when parents think that the television can be a substitute for human interaction.
"Television, like any other technology, is a tool," he says. "It can be used wisely, or unwisely. There is always a concern when children are left unattended with a television, especially at such a young age when they really need ongoing exchanges with other people. They need to be responsive and to learn from other people's responses to them. Television just cannot fulfill those needs."
Still, less is more
Diane Levin, Ph.D., professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, Mass., studies the on-going effects of media on young children and wrote the book Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture. Dr. Levin says that allowing a child under age 2 to watch TV for a short time may not result in permanent harm. But she emphasizes that a child that age has many other, better things he or she should be doing.
"Young children are very vulnerable," says Dr. Levin. "They do not have the cognitive skills to understand and make connections with what they see on television. They have to explore their world in order to make sense of how it works. They need experiences that help them to develop creativity, master their own skills, and learn that they can control their own environment. And they do this through play and self-discovery." Television, says Dr. Levin, can rarely substitute for this kind of experience. It can even undermine children's desire and ability to begin quality interaction with their environment.
"Even from a young age children can begin to rely on television images and messages to dictate their agenda if viewing becomes a ritual for them," she says. Also, the more parents use media as a babysitter, explains Dr. Levin, the more they will need to use it. TV watching is a habit that is difficult to break.
Doing your research
There have been numerous studies and reports on the effects of TV on children. Learning more about the subject makes it easier for parents to make decisions on their children's TV viewing, says Dr. Levin.
You can find information online and at local libraries. Organizations such as the Coalition for Quality Children's Media (http://www.cqcm.org) and PBS offer guides that can help parents find quality TV programs.
"Parents should reach out to their pediatricians and child care providers for advice on television viewing," adds Dr. Levin. "They should also talk to the parents of their children's friends for new and different perspectives and to work out common approaches for dealing with the TV issue."
Get the most out of TV with your toddler
Limit television time each day. The AAP recommends that parents should limit children's viewing to one to two hours a day. Young children need opportunities for a variety of activities throughout the day.
Watch television with your child. Studies show that television is most helpful for children when a parent or another adult watches with them.
Participate along with your child. Sing or repeat rhymes with your child during the program. Your participation will show your child that you care and are interested in their interests.
Talk about what you've watched with your child. Spend time talking about what happened on the program, both positive and negative behaviors and actions.
Do follow-up activities. Repeat some of the pretend play, activities, and songs after the show is over. This reinforces the ideas presented.