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The truth about kids and TV: how bad is television for kids' learning and development?

I can count on one hand the TV shows I was allowed to watch growing up. First there was Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and The Muppet Show, and later, The Cosby Show and Solid Gold. My parents – both teachers – were not TV people, and their offspring weren’t going to be either. We had one set tucked away in the basement. TV time was doled out in small, supervised doses.

Sadly, this strategy backfired. As soon as I got to college, I binged on 90210, Melrose Place, and The Real World. Sorry, Mom and Dad.

So I was surprised to discover, when I had my own child a few years ago, how deep my anti-TV roots run. I fell prey to all the warnings and fear-mongering aimed at new parents. Even before the Glee photo scandal and the Katy Perry/Sesame Street cleavage kerfuffle, I discovered that for many parents, TV is as much a hot-button issue as breastfeeding.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends less than two hours of screen time per day for kids – and no TV at all before age two. AAP spokesperson Ari Brown, M.D., a pediatrician and the author of Baby 411, explains the Academy’s position: “There is no evidence to show an educational or developmental benefit and some scientifically valid concern that there are risks developmentally, behaviorally, and even medically.” The experts emphasize that time spent in front of a screen is time not spent on imaginative play or social engagement with others. And studies have shown a reduction in expressive language skills in infants who regularly watch TV – even when the content is “educational.” (More on that later.) Medically, Brown says there are concerns that TV can adversely affect sleep and eating behaviors – especially when children have a set in their bedroom or watch during meals.

So for the first two years of my son’s life, I dutifully angled his highchair away from The Today Show. I made my husband watch The Wire in the basement. I recorded Oprah and 30 Rock to watch while the baby napped. Silly? Not according to the research. If TV is on in the background, children spend less time playing, even if they seem not to be paying attention, notes David S. Bickham, staff scientist for the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. Bad news for football fans: that includes televised sports.

Inevitably, of course, my son was exposed to TV. He first glimpsed Bob the Builder and Curious George; they were the gateway drugs to Wonder Pets and Wow Wow Wubbzy. He would come home from the sitter’s singing the theme song to Dora the Explorer. He was even confronted with TV screens in doctors’ waiting rooms and at gymnastics. Like parenting experts and bad grammar, TV is everywhere.

When my son turned two – the age when some TV viewing becomes permissible – I began to wonder exactly how bad TV really is for kids his age, and how so. Is the issue what they’re watching or how much?

“There’s no clear-cut answer,” Bickham says. What is clear is the link between TV and obesity. And it’s not just because kids who watch TV are less physically active, though that is a factor. According to a new study by the AAP, children and teens spend an average of seven hours a day consuming electronic media for entertainment, compared to an average of three hours a day watching TV in 1999. But also to blame for the correlation between television and childhood obesity are all those enticing commercials for fattening foods slipped in before, during and after kids’ shows. (Score one for me! We record most of my son’s favorites so we can fast-forward through commercials.)

Besides obesity, there’s also an undeniable link between TV-watching and violence. “It is almost universally accepted that violent media messages can impact how we think about violence, and how we perceive it as normal and acceptable. And those are the beliefs that shape our own behaviors,” Bickham says. Bad news for Tom and Jerry fans: that includes cartoon violence. Bickham admits that these findings make things tough on parents: “It’s really difficult to translate the research into real-world actionable and realistic recommendations: This is the world we live in and we’re not saying just throw out your TV.” He continues: “I think it’s about parents making informed decisions and being involved in media in their child’s life.”

The obvious solution, then, is educational programming. Right? Even the AAP concedes that “careful selection of media can help children learn.” But what constitutes educational programming is dicey. A 2007 University of Washington study determined that Baby Einstein and similar videos made for babies weren’t educational after all, and in fact delayed toddlers’ language development. In response, the Walt Disney Company offered refunds on all Baby Einstein videos.

On the other hand, there’s my childhood staple, Sesame Street. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell presents a case study of the show, which educators and child psychologists developed in the 1960s for the express purpose of promoting literacy among preschoolers. By all measures, it worked. “Virtually every time the show’s educational value has been tested – and Sesame Street has been subject to more academic scrutiny than any television show in history – it has been proved to increase the reading and learning skills of its viewers,” Gladwell writes.

Over the course of the three years I spent carefully limiting what and how much TV my son watched, it became clear to me that, like Bickham said, there is no firm answer to the TV question. This epiphany was well timed: when my second child was born last year, all bets were off. In my sleep-deprived, postpartum state, Wubbzy was the least of my worries.

Whether my newfound TV leniency was by choice or by necessity, I have to admit that micromanaging my son’s media consumption was no fun. Besides, condemning the boob tube made me a hypocrite. Because the fact is, I’m a TV junkie myself. On any given night, after I’ve put my two small children to bed, you can find me watching Glee, Chuck, Hot in Cleveland or Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood – and enjoying every minute.

I justify my preferred pastime by reminding myself (and anyone who dares disparage my viewing habits) that I make my living as a writer. I read books. I attend lectures and visit museums (occasionally). And I am no slouch at Scrabble. Besides, I’m hardly the only thinking person relaxing in front of a screen each night. My father, now retired from his college teaching job, spends much of his time watching Mad Men and Band of Brothers on Blu-ray on his 52-inch flat-screen. As for my now four-year-old son, I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy stressing about the effects of TV on his impressionable young mind. Why not? Well, not to brag, but he recently participated in an early childhood development study at a local university that determined he has the vocabulary of an average 16-year-old. (OK, I’m bragging.) Obviously, TV hasn’t rotted his brain too much.

Instead of getting hung up on how much TV he watches and the potential psychological effects of seeing Tom bash Jerry over the head with a frying pan, I’ve developed my own litmus test when it comes to my kid and television – which I’m happy to note meshes with the experts’ advice. I ask myself, “Is TV taking the place of a more important activity, like human interaction, reading or playing outdoors?” Most of the time, the answer is no. My son gets plenty of play dates, exercise and one-on-one time with his parents. He even has his own library card.

So I let myself off the hook, and I let my son turn on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Right after I set the DVR to record Modern Family.

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