My son Henry saw virtually no television for his first two years. My husband and I knew the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended against it, and since we don’t regularly watch television ourselves, avoiding it with Henry wasn’t a big deal. But right around the time he turned the TV-approved age of 2, Henry also got a new baby brother—and our television situation has become more complicated. Henry will watch TV occasionally but it’s hard to keep his baby brother, now crawling, from watching it, too. So we’re left wondering: Just how bad would a little secondhand television be for baby George?
CAUSES FOR CONCERN
The AAP, the official arbiter of such dilemmas, discourages any kind of media use for babies under 2. Yet “educational” programming for babies abounds in the marketplace. And according to a 2011 study, almost half of kids under 2 spend close to two hours a day watching television.
Ari Brown, M.D., the lead author of the AAP’s guidelines and a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, says there are three main concerns about babies watching TV. First, television watching has been linked to delayed language development for kids who are either watching kid-appropriate programs themselves, or who are present in the room while other people are watching. According to Brown’s 2011 policy statement on the subject, television viewing decreases parent-child interaction. Since babies’ vocabularies are related to how much time adults spend talking to them, they may learn to use words more slowly simply because less of this valuable “talk time” takes place when the television is on—whether the babies themselves are watching or not.
Second, media consumption displaces other kinds of play we know to be important.“The time might be better spent doing independent and creative play,” Brown says. Simply stacking nesting cups on the kitchen floor while mom and dad cook dinner, for instance, is a healthier use of a child’s time. And finally, sleep problems have been associated with kids who have televisions in their rooms. (In one study, 19 percent of parents reported their under-1-year-olds had one.) Though some parents may use screen time as a bedtime aid, a study in the journal Pediatrics found an association between TV and irregular sleep schedules. Sleep problems, in turn, are known to have negative consequences for mood, behavior, and learning.
CAN BABIES LEARN FROM TV?
Although research indicates that some television can be educational for older kids, the jury is still out for those under 2. There isn’t a lot of evidence that babies can make much sense of television under 2, according to Ellen Wartella, Ph.D., a communications researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and co-author of a recent paper on the subject. “Children aren’t born with the ability to understand the credibility of the screen,” she says.
But, this doesn’t mean that babies can never learn from television, says Wartella. Babies learn more quickly from real-life situations, but with enough exposure they can learn from screens. Meaning it’s better for babies to watch the same show each time. “It’s probably through those multiple viewings that they may be able to learn,” she says.
STRIKING A BALANCE
So what’s a responsible parent to do? Limit screen time for babies, and be strategic about what they do see. Brown, a mother of two, suggests that, in multi-child households, the older children watch TV while the baby naps. “You want the older child to have quiet time so that they’re not disrupting the baby’s sleep,” she says.
To make sure you’re choosing age-appropriate programming, Wartella recommends the reviews compiled by CommonSense Media, which you can search by program title, or sort by the age of your child.
Should babies watch television? Share your opinion in the comments.