If The Wiggles are on, I'm like, "Let's dance!" says Melany Farr, offering one of the reasons she lets her 2-year-old son, Sawyer, watch TV. But having fun is only part of her rationale: Farr, a stay-at-home-mom from Las Vegas, credits educational kids' shows with reinforcing Sawyer's ABCs and counting skills, while teaching him about other cultures.
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Sawyer began watching TV at 8 months, when he was so captivated by Blues Clues that his mom turned it on for him almost every day. Now, at 28 months, he's added Sesame Street, Stanley, Dora the Explorer, and, yes, The Wiggles to his daily menu. Between TV, videos, and the occasional computer game, Sawyer will, on some days, log as much as five hours of "screen time," though the total is usually closer to two hours.
"He does watch more than the experts recommend," concedes Farr, "but because of what he watches I don't have a problem with it." Farr is not alone in her enthusiasm. In a study released last October, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in healthcare issues, surveyed 1,065 parents across the U.S. about their children's exposure to television shows, videos, and computer games. Titled "Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers," the study found that "a significant proportion of parents believe that various types of educational media are "very important" to children's intellectual development, including educational television (58 percent), educational videos (49 percent), and educational computer games (43 percent)."
And buttressed by those beliefs, parents do not limit their little ones to just the occasional show. In fact, the study found that children under 2 average more than two hours of total screen time (including videos and computer games) a day. Moreover, 25 percent of them have a television set in their bedroom.
Until the release of this study -- one of the first ever to consider children under 2 -- little was actually known about the viewing habits of the very young. But experts suspect that the use of TV and videos in early childhood has soared in the last decade. More significantly, parents' attitudes -- especially this generation's embrace of television as "essential" to their children's development -- seem to have undergone a change in relation to older parents, who have traditionally been wary of the influence TV wields over youngsters. "I don't sense that today's parents are wrestling with how much time their kids spend with TV," says Vicky Rideout, the director of the Kaiser Foundation's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health and the report's lead author. "They seem to think TV is good for their kids -- an important learning tool."
How is it that parents have come to regard television and other electronic media so favorably? Part of the answer, surely, is successful marketing. Tapping into rampant parental anxiety about the developmental importance of a child's first three years, TV and video producers have generated a virtual explosion of programs, videos, and "lapware" (i.e., computer games played with a parent's help) that claim to be educationally or artistically beneficial to young minds.
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Yet parents also like what they see. Before her older son, now 2, was born, Denise Capriola received a Baby Mozart video as a gift. Her son began watching it at 4 months, and Capriola, who lives in Phoenix, was so impressed that she eventually bought the entire Baby Einstein series. These days, her 2-year-old watches between two and three hours a day of television or videos. "I feel that if my husband and I are monitoring what they're watching, and how much, then there's no problem," says Capriola. "That doesn't mean I'd sit my kids in front of soap operas. But with so many positive programs out there, why not give them that exposure?"
But the issue of quality aside, these kids are still spending far more time in front of the tube than child-development experts say they should. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has even gone so far as to recommend that kids under 2 watch no TV at all, and that all other kids be limited to one to two hours of age-appropriate "screen time" a day.
Clearly a huge gap exists between the skepticism of experts and the actual viewing habits of children. The challenge for parents, then, is to find a reasonable middle ground.
Regardless of why they let kids watch, parents need to realize that they can maximize the benefits and minimize the downside. A good place to start is by understanding why the AAP has adopted such a stringent policy.
Because so little is known about how television affects young children, the AAP wants parents to err on the side of caution. "We know that the brain, unlike other major organs, is embryonic at birth and develops over the first twenty-four months in response to environmental stimuli," says Michael Rich, MD, who helped formulate the policy. "We also know that young children who have a lot of playtime and interaction with parents generally do better than kids who are deprived of those opportunities. So doesn't it follow that a passive activity like watching television is not the best use of a child's valuable developmental time?" In other words, Dr. Rich, like many experts, is not only concerned with the effects of television, but also with the fact that it takes children away from activities that are truly essential to their emotional, intellectual, and physical development.
According to developmental experts, young children need to spend the vast majority of their waking hours actively engaging in the world around them. And that means playing with toys, toddling around a park, babbling with adults, and reading books with their parents -- not watching television, agrees Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, PhD, coauthor of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (Rodale, 2003). "Creative play is what boosts problem-solving skills, attention span, and social development," says Golinkoff.
With preverbal children, of course, it's hard to gauge what they are or are not learning. But research suggests that they learn better when they can experience something firsthand rather than view it on TV. In a well-known 1999 study, 1-year-olds watched demonstrations involving a hand puppet wearing a mitten with a bell concealed inside: Remove the mitten, shake it, and the bell rings. Children who were shown this demonstration in person were much more able to repeat it on their own than those who saw it on TV. "With very young children, live is always better," says the study's author, Rachel Barr, PhD, an assistant professor at Georgetown University. "Something about a two-dimensional context, like a TV screen, makes it hard for kids to transfer the information into three-dimensional reality."
Also some critics believe that even when kids can imitate what they see and hear on television, it may be less meaningful than parents suppose. "Does a 2-year-old need to know the alphabet?" asks educational psychologist Jane Healy, PhD, the author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It (Touchstone, 1999). "No -- he needs to learn to talk. You may hear words when you watch TV, but you do not formulate language. Kids learn to talk by actually talking with people -- not by watching others talk on a TV screen!"
Regardless of the amount of television a child watches, it remains critically important for parents to monitor the content. Ideally, in fact, a parent should watch along, in order to turn viewing into a more active experience. The goal is to apply what's going on in the show to your child's everyday life, which may mean pointing out colors in the room or counting together.
Of course, for many parents, TV's chief appeal is that they don't have to be there with the child. But even if you're using the tube as an electronic babysitter, you should check in regularly and be familiar with what your child is watching. To exercise greater control, some parents prefer videos and DVDs to TV programs. New Jersey mom Shawna Mehaffy's morning strategy is to let her two younger children, 4 and 2, watch their favorite shows in Mehaffy's bedroom while she is nearby cleaning and doing laundry. "Even when I'm not in the room, I can hear the TV and know if something's not appropriate." For instance? "Arthur didn't work in our house because Arthur has a lot of conflicts with his bratty little sister," says Mehaffy. "My kids would watch and start acting like the bratty little sister."
While there is no single standard for quality, typically good shows offer a mix of positive social lessons (on the importance of sharing, for example), educational skills (such as counting), and even some exercise, like dancing.
Parents should also consider the appropriateness of where their kids are watching. Experts usually advise that the TV be positioned in a space shared by the whole family, where the screen is easily visible. But almost anywhere is better than a child's room. Once you put the TV there, it's nearly impossible to get it out, so adopt a firm policy from the get-go.
And when no one is actually watching, shut off the set. The Kaiser study found that more than a third of American homes have the television on almost all the time, whether it's being watched or not. While this might seem harmless, it can distract young children from their play -- and possibly worse. Last year, a study by Daniel R. Anderson, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts and a noted researcher on children and media, observed children playing while an adult TV show (Jeopardy) was on. "The length of time that young children would play with their toys was cut in half," says Anderson. "This is significant not only because their focused learning time is reduced, but because kids who have shorter play episodes tend to have attention problems later on."
Similarly many parents watch their own favorite shows in front of an infant, assuming babies are too small to comprehend what's happening. Don't be so sure. Another revealing study, published in January by Donna Mumme, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at Tufts University, observed children as they watched an actress on TV having specific positive or negative emotional reactions to common objects such as a blue ball. Then, when the children were given the objects, they played happily with those the actress liked and avoided the ones to which she'd reacted negatively. "Children as young as 12 months are making decisions based on the emotional reactions of adults around them," says Mumme. "It turns out they also use emotional information they pick up from TV."
There's another reason parents' own viewing habits are important. You are your child's primary role model, and if your child sees you watching a lot of television, he is likely to follow suit. "Not surprisingly," the Kaiser study reported, "children in 'heavy TV households' -- those where the TV is left on 'always' or 'most of the time' --are more likely to start watching TV before they are 1 (42 percent vs. 28 percent), to watch every day (77 percent vs. 46 percent), and to watch longer than other children (when they do watch TV, they watch for an average of 34 more minutes)."
Turning off the TV may not be easy if your child is an avid fan, but most small children (perhaps after a meltdown or two) will adjust. "I always suggest that, instead of just letting your child watch TV while you prepare dinner, first take ten or fifteen minutes to play with her," says Joshua Sparrow, MD, the coauthor (with T. Berry Brazelton) of Touchpoints Three to Six. "She'll love the attention, and once she gets used to it, it'll be easier to suggest other activities -- like drawing a picture or telling you about her day."
Like most child-behavior experts, Dr. Sparrow believes that parents who limit media consumption when children are young are doing the kids -- and themselves -- a big favor down the road. In many studies of media use among preadolescents and adolescents, heavy viewing has been associated with diminished academic performance, aggressive behavior, or obesity. Plus, as kids get older, the number of age-appropriate, education-minded shows and videos shrinks drastically -- and, frankly, the kids themselves are harder to steer. "It's so much easier to deal with TV when kids are under 6," says Dr. Sparrow. "And that's when you set the patterns you'll be stuck with later on."
So, as Dr. Sparrow urges, set the right patterns now: It's the closest you'll get to a guarantee that your child will have a healthy relationship to the tube.
As the recent Kaiser study affirmed, most kids today watch television -- a lot of it. But some families take the radical step of getting rid of TV, and the vast majorities (85 percent) are glad they did.
In a 2000 survey of TV-free households, conducted by Barbara Brock, a professor of recreation management at Eastern Washington University, respondents reported that their kids easily replaced lost TV time with other activities such as reading, sports, and music, and in general quarreled less with their siblings.
Want to try it in your home? Join the tenth annual "TV Turnoff Week," sponsored by the nonprofit TV-Turnoff Network, scheduled for April 19 through 25. For more information, log on to tvturnoff.org or call 202-333-9220.
Eric Messinger is a writer based in New York City and the father of a 3-year-old daughter. Originally published in American Baby magazine, April 2004.