Is TV Really That Bad?

A little is okay; a lot is not. Here's how to tune in wisely with your kids.

Boy in front of TV
Photo: Angela Waye/Shutterstock

The Television Puzzle

When it comes to TV and kids, questions abound. Alarming headlines about the harm of television on young, impressionable minds has parents panicked and guilt ridden, but it hasn't made them turn off the boob tube. According to a 2006 report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 74 percent of infants and toddlers watch TV before the age of 2. With on-demand services, 24-7 cable kid channels, and heaps upon heaps of baby-oriented programming, we now have constant access to media that specifically targets very young children. So there's more TV than ever, more warnings than ever, and certainly more confusion than ever before.

The good news is that while there are parts of the media-and-kids puzzle that are still not put together, researchers have figured out plenty. We've asked experts to share their knowledge and real parents to offer their tips, tricks, and trials and tribulations to bring you the no-guilt-added, no-punches-pulled, fully updated guide to television and young kids.

DON'T expect your baby to learn from TV

Who doesn't want their baby to blossom into a little Beethoven or Picasso, especially if baby's training time allows you to drink a cup of coffee? Unfortunately, the "educational" baby videos that seem too good to be true are just that. Researchers agree that for kids under 2, TV has no educational value. "A newborn's brain triples in size between birth and 2 years of age," says Dimitri Christakis, MD, co-author of The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids. "And that brain growth happens in direct response to external stimulation, in the context of real-world experience."

Which means that telling Junior about the laundry you're folding is much more educational than any video engineered to boost his intellect. Don't quite believe it? Consider "the video deficit": In repeated studies, researchers have found that very young children are much slower to imitate a task when they watch it on screen than when they see it performed live.

Now all this research doesn't mean that turning on Baby Van Gogh for 15 minutes here and there will render your child mute. "Let's get real -- sometimes you need a few moments to regroup," says Jill Stamm, PhD, director of the New Directions Institute for Infant Brain Development, in Phoenix. "There will be no permanent harm, but we do know that it doesn't help them, and it does seem to slow development. At the very least, you will break even."

DON'T feed your kids in front of the TV

Childhood obesity is a red-hot topic right now, and for good reason. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that about 16 percent of U.S. children are overweight -- that's an increase of 45 percent in just a decade. There's no doubt television has something to do with it, but it's not necessarily that the sedentary act of watching TV cuts down on the time kids spend exercising. Instead, researchers believe the connection has more to do with kids eating in front of the TV and the food marketing found in commercials.

Getting a child to finish his dinner is a classic parenting challenge, and TV can work wonders, which may help to explain why 53 percent of kids under 6 eat at least one meal or snack while watching TV, according to a 2004 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"My older son used to be a very picky eater," says Georgeta Lester, of Blacksburg, Virginia, whose kids are 4 and 7. "In the mornings, the only way to get him to eat was to turn on the TV. He'd eat anything, even spinach. But I felt guilty -- I thought he wasn't processing what he was eating."

Lester's instincts are spot-on. Watching TV can interfere with a child's ability to respond to cues of fullness, potentially causing him to overeat, which may lead to weight problems, says Lori Francis, PhD, professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University. For preschoolers who ate meals while watching television, says Francis, "we found that the TV appeared to distract them from eating. So they ate more while it was on."

DON'T watch commercials

Thanks to DVR, no one has to sit through commercials anymore, which is a very good thing considering what researchers have discovered about the effect of food marketing on kids. In 2006, the Institute of Medicine issued a report stating that ads contribute to less-healthy diets for kids in the short term in addition to posing long-term health risks. "The research shows that advertisements during children's programs are usually for foods that parents don't want their children eating in excess, like snacks and sweets," says Francis. "This research also shows that children tend to request the foods they see advertised."

Not only do commercials sell our kids on unhealthy food -- and an idea of unhealthy food -- but the way they interrupt programming may make it tough for kids to understand the stories they're watching, Stamm says. That's because the part of the brain that retains short-term information isn't well developed in kids, so after watching a commercial or two, children are likely to forget the thread of the story they were viewing, and by the time it resumes, they'll see it as a whole new story. "What this is doing is wiring the brain for quick shifts of information," says Stamm, "which is the opposite of what you want to do. You want to increase their attention span."

DO turn the TV off when the show is over

Limiting screen time to no more than two hours daily, as the AAP suggests for kids over 2, sounds simple. But it isn't always so easy in practice.

"Scarlet watches way more TV than I ever thought I'd let her," says Nora Keane, of Brooklyn, New York, whose daughter is 3. "She wants it from the time she wakes up, and it's a real battle every day to limit it."

When shutting off the TV sparks drama at home, it can be easy to leave it on for just one more show, and another, and another. But putting a cap on TV time is crucial. "It's about finding a balance," says Shelly Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology, in New York City. "You don't want screen time to eclipse other activities, like playtime conversations and physically moving their bodies."

But what if your child doesn't seem to even notice when the TV is on? "It's not like she's sitting there like a drone in front of the TV for two hours straight," says Vivian Ghazarian, of Havertown, Pennsylvania, of her 2-1/2-year-old daughter. "Once she gets comfortable in her cozy little environment with TV in the background, then she plays with her toys and gets creative and does her own thing."

Yet even when kids appear to be uninterested in the screen flickering behind them, it changes the way they play. In a study of kids 1 to 3, researchers at the University of Massachusetts found that background TV shortened the intervals that kids would play with toys and made imaginative play less likely. And experts warn that there's reason to believe constant TV in the background may interfere with toddlers' language development.

DO choose programming carefully

There is good news too. Though it won't boost babies' brain power, television -- the right television -- can teach your older kids a thing or two. "Around age 2 or 3, TV starts to become beneficial," Dr. Christakis says. "There is no reason to be concerned about kids this age watching television, if it's not done in excess."

If you want your kid to learn, choose shows that incorporate or encourage the following, says Lisa Guernsey, author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five.

  • Straight-line storytelling, which takes kids from point A to point B with no flashbacks.
  • Participation, such as pauses built into the show during which kids can respond to a question.
  • Labeling, which means whatever is being discussed is visually present on the screen.
  • Engagement: If the characters and ideas in a program aren't interesting to kids, what's the point?
  • Repetition and review.
  • Nonviolent content.

A note about nonviolence: Common sense says your 2-year-old is not ready for a vampire movie. But on-screen violence can sneak into even a G-rated movie or Disney production. "Much of kids' TV shows violence as funny, which makes parents believe it's harmless," says Dr. Christakis. "A cartoon character gets hit in the head with a bowling ball, and his head pops right back up. But that's not what happens in real life -- that's violence without consequence, and it's harmful because young kids don't distinguish fantasy from reality."

Pacing is important too, experts say. You want to steer clear of fast cuts, quick edits, or anything that moves too rapidly for your young viewer to follow.

DO watch with your kids

The truth is, often the whole point of television is that it keeps our kids occupied while we do something else. Monica McMahon, of Mountain View, California, relies on TV, as do many parents, in the morning so that she can get herself and her 1-1/2- and 2-1/2-year-olds ready for their day, and again in the evening, so she can prepare dinner. "I'm using it as a distraction," she says, "and I feel guilty sometimes because I feel like I am not interacting with the kids as much." For Ghazarian, who just had a second baby and moved homes, television has been indispensable lately for her older child: "When I was pregnant, it was a chance for me to rest, and then we were packing boxes, and now Nyrie watches in the early morning so I can sleep a little with the new baby."

We all use the electronic babysitter occasionally, and there's nothing criminal in that. But experts have found that although television doesn't decrease the time that kids spend reading or running around, it does cut into time spent interacting with parents and caregivers. And having social time with people who love them is essential for kids' development in early childhood.

"Television can get in the way of the attention the parent can give to the child," Pasnik says, "but it doesn't have to. It can be a story starter." Turns out the educational value of television shoots up when parents watch with their kids, so keep an eye or an ear on the TV when you can, add some context, describe what you see, and ask for their thoughts. "The more you can talk to them about it," Pasnik adds, "the more they are going to get from that experience."

At the end of the day, more important than the specific dos and don'ts is this guiding principle: TV should be just one small part of your child's day. That day should also be rich with physical exercise, reading time, unstructured play, and lots of special time with you or other loved ones. As in all other matters, moderation makes a pretty good motto.

Reality & TV: Moms Dish

"My kids watch TV only with my husband, which limits viewing to before work and on weekends. They know: If you want to watch TV, deal with your father."

-- Megana Hosein, San Jose, California, mom to George, 3, and Desmond, 1

"For us, television needs to have some sort of educational content -- whether it's learning manners from Caillou or the alphabet from Sesame Street."

-- Vivian Ghazarian, Havertown, Pennsylvania, mom to Nyrie, 2 1/2, and Nishan, 1 month

"We know it's easy to get engulfed in TV, so we decided to set it up in a way that wasn't conducive to that. We put it in the basement -- it's out of sight, out of mind."

-- Elena Serrano, Blacksburg, Virginia, mom to John Henry, 3, and Paul Wyatt, 8 months

"Olyvia wakes up really early, and if she's cranky, TV is the only thing that calms her. We just use it first thing in the morning so she thinks TV is on only in the morning."

-- Gayle Villani, Maplewood, New Jersey, mom to Olyvia, 3, and Corynna, 4 months

TV & Kids: Facts

  • Kids play for shorter periods when TV is on in the background.
  • Thirty-two percent of kids 6 and under live in homes where the TV is on all or most of the time.
  • Seventy-four percent of all infants and toddlers watch TV before their second birthday.
  • In 1970, the average age at which kids started watching TV was 4; today it is 4 months.
  • Forty-three percent of children under age 2 watch TV every day, and 18 percent watch videos or DVDs every day.
  • Kids are slower to start a task they see on screen vs. live.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV before age 2 -- and no more than 2 hours after.


Common Sense Media

Parents Television Council


PBS Workshop

Nicole Caccavo Kear, a mother of two, lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.

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