The effect of television on children, especially on babies, is an intensely controversial subject. Every year rafts of studies and statistics appear about children's television habits, and some of them may seem alarming.
The average American child watches about four hours of television a day [Source: AAP], while 20 percent of children under 2 have televisions in their rooms. Among babies 3 months old and younger, 40 percent watch TV, with the percentage increasing significantly for children age 2 and younger [Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer]. A study in 2003 found that children 6 months to 6 years old spend an average of two hours a day dealing with "screen media" like televisions, computers and video games [Source: CBS News]. The study also revealed a correlation between time spent watching television and difficulty reading.
Many of these studies have led doctors, educators and other experts to recommend curbing a child's TV consumption. The campaign received another shot in the arm when a study released in early August 2007 showed that baby-oriented video programs like "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" may harm child development. These videos, which are widely available on VHS and DVD, contain little dialogue, instead relying on juxtaposed images that frequently aren't related to one another or are difficult to explain. (The study cites lava lamps as one example of an image or concept that's hard to explain to a baby.) But the videos are tremendously popular: The "Baby Einstein" series has earned more than $500 million in revenue [Source: Boston Globe] and Disney purchased the company in 2001 [Source: Denver Post].
Many parents say that they use these videos like babysitters, turning on a "Baby Einstein" DVD for their children so that mom and dad can clean up the house, prepare dinner or take care of other chores. But the problem, researchers say, is that these videos don't provide the benefits they claim, and they may even do harm.
The problem lies not only in the videos' content -- little dialogue or interactivity and rapidly changing images -- but also with how babies' brains develop. A child's brain is very sensitive before age 2. It's still developing neural connections and growing in size. Because of this sensitivity, it's important for babies to have a lot of interactive stimulation to learn and develop. The researchers contend that the videos don't provide this stimulation.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Pediatrics, looked at 1,000 families, examining children who were 8 months to 16 months old. Thirty-two percent of children surveyed watched the videos, 17 percent of them for at least an hour a day. To determine how programs like "Baby Einstein" affected development, they focused on vocabulary. On average, for every hour a day a child watched these programs he or she knew six to eight fewer words compared to children of the same age. Children who were 17 months to 24 months old didn't seem affected by the program in any way.
The head of the study, Frederick Zimmerman of the University of Washington, said that "there is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVDs and videos, and there is some suggestion of harm" [Source: Forbes].
So should all TV-viewing be forbidden for young children? On the next page, we'll look at what else the researchers had to say and what some experts recommend for babies watching TV.
Recommendations for Babies and TV
One of the researchers involved with the "Baby Einstein" study said that he would prefer that parents watch television with their children, if they allow their children to watch TV at all. That way at least the parents would be engaging with their children and helping them to understand unfamiliar concepts. The creators of the "Baby Einstein" series offer the same advice [Source: Denver Post].
But many experts contend that young children shouldn't watch any TV. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that children under 2 years old should not watch any television and that children older than 2 shouldn't watch more than one to two hours of TV a day [Source: AAP].
In a published statement, Frederick Zimmerman and the other researchers emphasized the consideration of time. They argue that watching television wastes babies' "alert time," since babies sleep about 12 hours a day [Source: Forbes]. Parents can better spend the time their baby is awake by speaking "baby talk" (which actually helps babies develop language) and engaging in interactive activities that TV can't provide. Physical and social interaction allows babies to pick up subtle cues that also help language development. The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends a variety of exercises for aiding babies' cognitive development, including using eye contact, engaging in back-and-forth conversation, playing "finger games" (like peek-a-boo) and reading to a child [Source: ASHA]. If they're on their own, games like playing with blocks are beneficial.
Experts associate excessive TV watching with a variety of problems in children, among them childhood obesity, ADHD and aggression. Some advocacy groups also express concern about the images children see on "non-educational" TV shows. The AAP estimates that if a child watches between three and four hours of TV a day, he will see 8,000 murders before he starts middle school [Source: AAP]
Some research shows that certain TV shows do help development. The popularity and critical acclaim of "Sesame Street," which is geared towards toddlers, is proof of that. Preschool-aged children can benefit from educational TV. There's also a TV channel called BabyFirstTV devoted solely to programming for babies, but it is the subject of some criticism. BabyFirstTV runs commercial-free, educational programs that last less than 10 minutes. The company claims that while parents generally leave babies to watch TV unattended, most of their customers watch TV with their children. Even so, some doctors claim that that's only the lesser of two evils.
Many television-viewing habits have neither a positive nor a negative effect. The AAP and other experts recommend that if your child is watching TV, watch it with him. Watching together facilitates positive interactions. Parents can explain problems with a show or things a child doesn't understand.
Zimmerman argues that the amount of time spent watching DVDs like "Baby Einstein" is an important factor, but more research is also needed in order to study the long-term developmental effects of these videos. The overall conclusion appears to be that even supposedly educational television can be harmful to children under 2. Parent-child interaction is important at any age, but it's even more important for babies, and that's something a screen can't replace.
For more information about babies and TV, cognitive development and related topics, please check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Activities to Encourage Speech and Language Development." The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/Parent-Stim-Activities.htm
- "Babies Saturated With Media." Associated Press. CBS News. Oct. 29, 2003. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/10/29/earlyshow/living/parenting/main580659.shtml
- "DVDs Don't Produce Brainy Babies." HealthDay News. Forbes. Aug. 7, 2007. http://www.forbes.com/forbeslife/health/feeds/hscout/2007/08/07/hscout607091.html
- "Television and the Family." American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.aap.org/family/tv1.htm
- Dance, Amber. "'Baby Einstein': a bright idea?" Los Angeles Times. Aug. 7, 2007. http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/la-sci-babyeinstein7aug07,0,6729973.story
- Meltz, Barbara F. "DVD series for babies, parents fuels TV debate." The Boston Globe. March 22, 2006. http://www.boston.com/ae/tv/articles/2006/03/22/dvd_series_for_babies_parents_fuels_tv_debate/
- McGrath, Pat. "No evidence television is good for babies." Aug. 8, 2007. http://www.hfxnews.ca/index.cfm?sid=51730&sc=93
- Nyhan, Paul. "40 percent of babies watch TV, UW study finds." Seattle Post-Intelligencer. July 11, 2007. http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/314676_babytube08.html
- Pankratz, Howard. "'Baby Einstein' may be harmful, study says." The Denver Post. Aug. 8, 2007. http://test.denverpost.com/news/ci_6568141