Motherhood, Marriage and Other Wild Rides

Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Mommyhood

Is TV Harmful for Babies and Toddlers? September 15, 2008

How much TV does your baby watch? For most moms, we instantly shave off the numbers, the way we might fudge on our exact weight when asked at the DMV.

France recently banned its broadcasters from airing TV shows aimed at children under three years of age in an effort to protect the very young from what it described as “the harmful effects of television.” Read the entire story here.  

The ruling followed a public debate in France over channels such as BabyFirstTV and Baby TV, which broadcast programming aimed at the under-three set 24 hours a day. Some “harmful effects” noted included “encouraging passivity”, “slow language acquisition”, “over-excitedness”, “troubles with sleep and concentration”, as well as “dependence on screens”.

For my entire adult life, I’ve either lived TV-free, or had a hand-me-down set that was merely plugged into the wall on which I received whatever the accompanying bunny ears picked up. I prided myself on my lifestyle; rather than watch TV, I was doing yoga, hiking, working or attending class, spending time with friends, or reading a book. 

When I got married, my husband purchased an over-sized flat screen. When my son Joseph was born, we introduced Baby Einstein videos, and his love affair with TV was soon established. Today, we live luxuriously with all the amenities basic cable affords us, including PBS children’s shows, Nick Jr., and Playhouse Disney. The plain fact is that I don’t know how I would ever get dinner ready if it weren’t for Dora, Diego, Caillou and Elmo. At the risk of ridicule, I’ll admit that TV is now a powerful negotiating tool in our household.

As for the French, I have no idea what “dependence on screens” even means—are they worried that children will no longer be capable of enjoying books or watching a puppet show? (To quote Dean Jones in Herbie The Love Bug, “be serious, will you?”) And as far as I’m concerned, “passivity” and “over-excitedness” contradict each other. How can a child be passive AND over-excited? I’ll stay mum about “troubles with sleep.” We’ve had our share of that issue.

As for “slow language acquisition,” I say ce n’est pas vrai, mes amis. Both my children have accelerated their learning of letters, shapes and numbers with the help of educational programming. When we are reading together or playing with learning toys or even doing flash cards, they both remember what they saw onscreen, and can either repeat the storyline, or bring up a fact they learned and can apply it to the situation. This especially goes for Leapfrog’s Letter Factory movie. At 14 months, my baby Noah was already able to identify all the letters of the alphabet and make all the letter sounds exactly how they make them in the movie. I’m not saying I’m FOR television, but I’ve certainly seen some positive results from watching educational shows. Of course, their viewing is entirely limited to educational programming only. (No, Sponge Bob! Bad Sponge Bob!)

Now that you’re convinced my children have spent their childhood in front of the TV, let me assure you nothing could be further from the truth. I worry as much as the next mom about how much, if any, TV my kids should be watching, and I’m embarrassed when my child can name an animated TV personality from 50 yards. My three-year-old Joseph is particularly well-versed in the Disneyland cast of characters for someone who was only at D-Land once as a baby.

I was talking about this topic with my friend Renee recently. We are both confounded by our sons’ ardent passion for the movie Peter Pan. Here’s where I feel the French may be on to something. Whenever we visit the library, it is Joseph’s singular wish that it be available to take home (It is almost always borrowed.) That movie incites Joseph’s inner “lost boy”; one viewing results in days of leaping aggressively about threatening all in his path with an imaginary sword. Even though we haven’t let him watch “Pet-ah” (he says it with a British accent, imitating the voice talent. Did someone say, “language acquisition”?) for about 3 months now, he still asks for it all the time. He’s even watched excitable movies like The Incredibles, but nothing else has the same effect. In fact, for the last month, Joseph has been carrying around a catalog that came in the mail with pages and pages of Halloween costumes, and you know what’s funny? He wants the Tinkerbell costume! (They have Peter and they have pirates… but he likes Tinkerbell. Or, he wants to dress up as Spiderman, a movie he has never even seen.)

My friend Renee has season passes to Disneyland, and she relents to her two-year-old son’s demands for Peter Pan by letting him go on the themed amusement park ride. “I know, I’m ridiculous,” she accedes, “and now he’s all excited again. But we are going to cut him off from the movie. I suppose it’s going to have to ‘break’ or something.” But to her surprise, her son has already declared he wants to be a princess for Halloween, and he wants to “throw a birthday party for the evil witch” in Sleeping Beauty—a film he is not allowed to watch. “Where do they come up with these thoughts?!” she asks. Sigh, where indeed. I keep reminding myself that, for decades, little boys have been acting out Lord of the Flies as a response to Peter Pan, and parents have applauded them for doing so. It used to be some kind of rite of manhood to act like a wee warrior, and only recently has it become culturally unsavory to do so. Be that as it may, I personally prefer a kinder, gentler preschooler. (And I’m not thrilled with Peter Pan’s depiction of women, either.)

In a chatroom discussion on this topic “Dr. Duck” wrote, “My 3-year-old loves DVDs like Mighty Machines, Big Red Fire Engines, Construction vehicles, and watches them repeatedly. I have no problem with letting him watch them. His vocabulary development is astounding. Lately he has been interested in watching Stranger Safety, 911 for Kids and Bill Nye the Science Guy. I’m amazed. This is a kid who also is lucky enough to have had lots of real-life experiences too. I have a large family in a variety of disciplines so he gets to experience all that they know. He’s a happy little guy I tell ya!”

What your thoughts? Do you let your child watch TV? What kinds and when? Has it been a positive or negative experience?

Read Dr. Linda Acredolo’s opinion on children and TV here!

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2 Responses to “Is TV Harmful for Babies and Toddlers?”

  1. I let my one year old watch t.v. — mainly Sprout, Baby Einstein DVDs and one Caillou DVD we own as well. I do worry that we use it too much sometimes. However, I can accredit his learning to wave good-bye to that “Good-Bye” song that Elizabeth sings on Sprout in the morning. We had worked and worked with him to wave. Then one morning he saw that little clip and now he’s a waving fool!

    I think just like anything else, in moderation, it’s a good thing.

  2. rjlacko Says:

    Good point about moderation. TV can be considered an educational resource–especially when parents supervise what is being watched.
    I’m happy to hear about the waving! C’est si adorable, maman!


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