Silver Spring, Md, June 8, 2012 – The television, TV, the boob-tube, the tele, the peacekeeper, the “babysitter”… While the last one is usually said in jest, the sad fact is there is more truth to it today than there should be. In decades past, whether and how much to let babies watch TV wasn’t much of an issue. For baby boomers, TV was relatively new when they were born and were young children, and when they had children, programming was limited to a handful of cartoons and programs specifically designed for kids.
But today is an entirely different story. Today, not only are there the standbys like Sesame Street and after school cartoons, but there are entire channels geared towards kids that provide a non-stop stream of programming. Add to that the “educational” DVDs for infants and the media exposure through computers and iPads, parents and infants are overwhelmed with media.
In an October of 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued and update to their 1999 warning regarding television in a policy statement entitled “Media Use by Children Younger than 2 Years.” They warn that exposing infants and toddlers to television does not improve their language and visual motor skills. In it they cite dozens upon dozens of studies that all say the same thing: television and babies don’t mix.
In an article entitled “’Educational TV’ for Babies? It Doesn’t Exist” in the October 18, 2011 issue of TIME, Dr. Ari Brown, the lead author of the AAP’s policy statement said that there is a presumption among parents that television has educational benefits, but for children under 2 that just isn’t true. The AAP says a startling 90% of parents allow their children to watch some form of electronic media, and more shocking, almost 1/3 of parents say their children have a television in their bedrooms by age 3.
While many parents use the television as a distraction for their babies so they can get housework done, make dinner, or get ready for work, they have been largely duped by programs and DVDs dubbed as “educational.” The truth is that the research has found that while there can be an educational benefit to high-quality TV programs for children over the age of 2, younger children is not the same. Children under the age of 2 do not benefit because they are at different cognitive levels. The AAP cites 2 studies in which children under the age of 2 who watched “Sesame Street” displayed negative effects on language development despite the fact that the program is known for having positive educational benefits for older children. There are some studies that have shown a neutral effect of television on learning in young children, but the AAP says there is no evidence of benefit.
In fact, there have been numerous studies that show that young children learn better from people than from television. Barr & Hayne, in their study “Developmental changes in imitation from television during infancy” showed that children under 2 years learned better and were able to replicate or imitate live people better than they could people they observed on television. And language development studies have long shown that babies acquire more language from real people. Further, learning comes from play and problem solving. A child who is staring at a television isn’t learning through these crucial experiences.
Even “secondhand” television – the television you watch that your child just happens to be in the room for – is detrimental up until age 2. While the AAP says that the average child under 2 is exposed to 1-2 hours of television directly every day, many families reported having the television is on for an 6 hours a day which becomes background noise for the baby. There are a few things the AAP is concerned with in regards to this indirect exposure. Given that the first 2 years are the prime time for the rapid acquisition of language and are crucial to learning and refining basic motor skills, developmental delays can occur because the parent is watching the television and not interacting with the child.
Language development in children come from the amount of exposure they have to language, and that’s direct interaction with real people. In a study published in The Achieves of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, researchers found when a parent is watching television, they are not interacting with the child and the resultant decrease in interaction, specifically speaking to a child, had negative effects on the child’s development. The study concludes that heavy television viewing impairs language development in very young children.
The AAP says that there is evidence that heavy television viewing, while not only having immediate consequences on language development, also contributes to attention problems which can cause problems as children enter school. However, they do acknowledge the need for more research in this area.
But, don’t think that just because the AAP says no to TV, that it says yes to computers. In its statement it clearly defines “media” as “television programs, prerecorded videos, Web-based programming, and DVDs viewed on either traditional or new screen technologies.”
This isn’t new. The AAP issued a similar warning in 1999. In fact, the 1999 policy even predicted the rise of commercial production and marketing of media materials to the children under 2 segment. However, with a decade more of research and the flood of media that has overwhelmed us all, they felt it was appropriate to update its position. But it hasn’t changed much.
The bottom line, media exposure should be discouraged in children under 2. The AAP recognizes that in today’s world there is little chance that young children will not be exposed to TV. They recommend when they are, that parents should limit exposure and when possible watch “educational” programs with their children to increase interaction and help them understand what they are seeing. The idea of setting media limits should also be introduced and help “create balance at an early age.” They further suggest that the TV be turned off and parents sit down and read to and play with their children.
For a full listing of all studies the AAP referenced in making its determination, please visit the references section of its policy statement. There you will find the bibliographic information for all 46 studies.