The Impact of TV on Babies and Young Children

From The Parent Review

Can babies benefit from the multitude of DVDs and TV shows now being designed for them? Several research studies suggest that media and babies don't mix. Here's a look at why.

Long-Term Impact

Too much time spent in front of electronic screens before the age of 3 (and later in childhood as well) may have negative effects on children's learning and health through adolescence, according to researchers.

While the latest technology and educational programming have much to offer, child-development experts say we have little understanding of how viewing life on a screen affects the youngest children, and no research supports the idea that electronic games and programs for babies promote learning. Since 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no screen time at all for babies younger than 2 years old.

The Human Touch

Crucial brain growth and development occurs during the first two years of life. That brain development is guided by a baby's environment, and is shaped by talking, touching, listening, tasting and other sensory experiences. Researchers have explored whether there is an effect on infant development if some, or much, of that real-world experience is replaced by time spent in front of a two-dimensional screen. In a recent study at the University of Massachusetts, researchers observed a group of 12- to 15-month-olds who were shown by a person how to use a puppet, while another group of infants saw the demonstration on a video screen. The first group of children was able to replicate the task after watching it being done once. The second group needed to watch the video six times before they could imitate it. These results highlight the importance of human interaction to infants' learning.

Recent research reveals that babies watch and absorb scenes on TV earlier than we might assume.

Other ongoing studies investigate how babies process and transfer information viewed on a screen, and at what age they are able to learn and recall what they've seen. These studies support the finding that babies can learn from two-dimensional viewing, but that it is more difficult for them to process the information.

This research also reveals that babies watch and absorb scenes on TV earlier than we might assume. Six-month-old babies showed some memory of images they had seen on TV, leading researchers to caution parents that babies may be watching before we know, and that an awareness of what is on the screen while the baby is in the room is prudent.

Another study showed that children as young as 12 months respond to emotions expressed by actors on screen with their own positive or negative emotions, confirming that adult programming can impact infant feeling and experience.

TV and School Readiness

Other studies suggest that what young children see on TV can affect their preparedness for academic settings. In one study of 236 children ages 2 to 7, those who watched general entertainment TV (cartoons, music videos and sports) performed more poorly on tests of school-readiness skills than children whose viewing was limited to age-appropriate educational programming. The data of this study and others led researchers to conclude that the impact of TV on early academic skills depends in part on the content of the programs viewed.

TV and Childhood Obesity

Toddlers and preschoolers are at increased risk for another potential lifelong effect from excessive television viewing: obesity. A study of 1,000 2- to 5-year-olds found that those who watched two or more hours of TV a day were three times more likely to become overweight than children who did not watch TV.

Advertising in between the programming complicates the mix, as TV appears to be a powerful influence in shaping food preferences, with ads laying a tempting table of foods high in sugar and low in nutrients. Children's preferences for the snack foods and cereals they see advertised, combined with inactivity, increase their risk for obesity.

Awareness and Balance

Experts on children and the media stress that healthy development relies on a balance of physical and cognitive activities. TV can rock that balance, making children's days lopsided toward sitting and passively absorbing an unfiltered assortment of influences. Experts urge parents to limit preschoolers' media exposure to 30 minutes or less a day, and to monitor the content, minimizing their children's exposure to violent images. They also stress that the negative effects of TV can be reduced, and the benefits of educational programming increased, when parents watch alongside their children, and talk about the powerful images they are consuming.

Parents of babies and toddlers under 2, however, must be aware of the value of interactive play - the talking and exploration that best supports brain development. A book read with a loving caregiver, along with talking, pointing, and holding, is how babies and media best mix.

Sources: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 160 (2006), pages 387-392; Child Development 72 (2001), page 1347; Child Development 74 (2004), pages 221-237.