Kids and TV Time: How much television is too much?

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Is there a parent around who doesn’t know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for kids under the age of two? How about a parent who knows that, and then feels crazily guilty every time the set is on?

The truth is, even though a lot of TV time is linked to weight gain, speech delays, aggressive behavior, and more, most of us don’t have the luxury of extended family nearby and count on our televisions for sporadic breaks so we can shower or feed ourselves or just breathe. So if you’re going to bend the AAP rules a bit, how much TV is okay for a toddler’s developing brain?

To answer that question, it’s helpful to consider what could be so bad about television to begin with. Contrary to common belief, it’s not necessarily that the act of TV watching is harmful. Sure, the intense visuals are unnatural and probably a bit overwhelming to a baby or toddler (little ones are usually transfixed by the catchy light and movement and, even if they’re over-stimulated, it can be hard for them to look away). But it’s not so much that TV itself is toxic, it’s more that anything else your toddler could be doing in the real, physical world is probably better for learning.

TV is a one-way, passive experience. All the other parts of your toddler’s day – talking to you, building a tower, doing somersaults and spinning in a circle, banging pots and pans – is interactive. In even the most bare-bones, seemingly boring, real world circumstances, your small child is unleashing her inner scientist and testing principles of physics, body movements, relationships, feelings, sounds, and more. The way she learns is by using two-way, cause and effect principles – and she won’t get any feedback from a television set.

In other words, no, TV won’t melt your toddler’s brain – it just gets in the way of her all-important little life experiments.

A 20-minute video here and there is not a game changer for a toddler. But one of the reasons for limited under-two viewing is that TV time tends to have a snowball effect. You start with an occasional video when she’s a baby, then you decide one every morning while you’re making breakfast is just fine, next your toddler is requesting two shows when he wakes up and one before dinner, and it only grows from there.

You can see that snowball effect when you look at TV-watching statistics: nearly half of all kids under two-years-old watch television every day, and preschool age kids have an average of four hours of daily screen time (one study found that for kids in home-based daycares it was five-and-a-half hours daily). Meanwhile, the average U.S. household watches over eight hours a day!

That last fact is an important one, because it’s common for families to have the TV on as background entertainment. Even if your toddler doesn’t plop down to watch whatever is on, we have reason to think that the constant sound of the TV may disrupt language development. Hearing random talking and sounds that don’t relate to her environment could act like interference and distract her from concentrating on talking and playing.

So don’t think of television as inherently bad – if you need the break, it’s probably just fine to snag 20 minutes of simple, non-explosively noisy and over-stimulating TV. When I was home with my son as a toddler, if I was exhausted, we’d climb into bed with the laptop and I’d pull up two side-by-side browsers – one was Youtube videos of garbage trucks making their neighborhood rounds, the other, www.nytimes.com. We were both happy.

In the early toddler years, think of TV as a tool you have at your disposal to buy yourself time when you need it. After your child turns two, consider making some house TV rules, such as television is only for the weekends (more feasible for full time working parents with kids in daycare or preschool). That way you’ll know your child’s week was full of real-world experiences, so snuggling up with a movie is a guilt-free treat – and a break – for everyone.

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