Is TV Time Good for Tots?

Marketers want you to think so, but child experts disagree.

As parents, we’re always looking for ways to make our children smarter, to better prepare them for success later in life. But can we accomplish that during toddlerhood by parking them in front of the latest Baby Einstein videos? Filmmakers and educators who create “baby” media would want you to believe as much. But child development experts disagree. 

Before you buy, know the facts.

Dr. Hank Herrod of The Urban Child Institute says children don’t receive much benefit from passively watching TV. “Children’s early brain development occurs through a process of interactions between children and their environments,” he says. “Unfortunately, when infants and toddlers are watching television, their brains are being wired to respond to screens at a time when they need to be interacting with real human beings and developing motor skills.”

Researchers say that, on average, by the time a child reaches her second birthday, she is watching 90 minutes of television a day. Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, says early television viewing places children at an increased risk for attention deficit problems, diminished reading ability, and weight issues.

 You would never know it, judging from the explosion of media that promises smarter tots. Products like Baby Einstein and Bach for Babies profess to offer overworked parents much-needed support by providing something other than cartoon noise to tots under 3.

Does media make baby brighter?

Some of the most popular media for infants and toddlers is made by educators and based on scientifically proven methods widely used in early childhood development. But research indicates these might not do much good after all. According to a 2007 University of Washington study, children between 16 and 24 months were not affected in any way by exposure to baby-oriented videos.

 Alarmingly, babies between 8 and 16 months whose parents relied heavily on baby media actually scored lower on standard language development tests. Research at other universities concludes that there is no relationship between baby media and general language development in children between their first and second birthdays, and babies who learned the most words at a younger age were those exposed to no infant media at all.

 The difference is simple: Children who learn the most are exposed to parents whose interactive behavior delivers what babies need most: time to touch, talk, read, and play. In study after study, science says direct human interaction with babies and toddlers is really the only way to prepare them for their verbal, social future.

“A TV showing a video does next to nothing for very young children without some kind of contextual interaction with caregivers,” says Katie Midgley of The Urban Child Institute. “But if a parent watches a video with their kids and verbally interprets the images and themes presented, these fertile young minds benefit from it.”

Babies need face time, with you.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommends children under age 2 have no screen time. Instead, involve tots in activities that foster healthy development such as reading, singing, and playing. To ensure proper brain development in very young children, The Urban Child Institute recommends:
• No television viewing for children under 2.
• Keep televisions and computers centrally located and out of kids’ bedrooms.
• Monitor the programs your children watch. They should be informative
    and peaceful.
• Heighten brain activity by repeat wording and phrases you hear during the
    show; encourage children to sing and dance along with the characters.

Katie Midgley is the community outreach and public policy associate with the Urban Child Institute in Memphis.

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