Motherhood, Marriage and Other Wild Rides

Health, Happiness and the Pursuit of Mommyhood

Television and Babies: What Do We Really Know? October 19, 2008

About a month ago, I wrote a post entitled “Is TV Harmful for Babies and Toddlers?”.  I’ve experienced, with my two children, how educational programming can accelerate the understanding of concepts such as the letters of the alphabet and their individual sounds, recognizing patterns and orders of operation, a greater appreciation for songs and music, and one particular DVD has even helped me teach my infant to use the potty


Over the last month, a couple of comments have nudged my guilt about allowing the kids to watch TV or DVDs while they eat breakfast, or as a distraction to keep them out from underfoot while I cook dinner. (Mind you, they are primarily watching shows I deem educational: Muzzy Spanish language training, Letter Factory, Math Circus, or the like.) The first was a combination of Joseph’s preschool teacher commenting about how he has difficulty following instructions (prefers to do his own thing) along with the results from his hearing/speech screening, when the screener mentioned that he did not follow instructions well. Could this be because of television?


The second nudge came when I joked about 18-month-old Noah’s responses to Dora the Explorer’s questions with a neighbor: “Where should we go next?” Dora asks. (“Backpack!” he replies). And, “Will maracas help us row across Turtle Lake?” (“noooo!” says Noah, imitating Dora’s notorious intonation.) My neighbor replied roughly like this: “I just attended a Waldorf education seminar, and they said that TV is the worst thing for babies and kids and that it steals their soul.” Those may not have been the exact words, but nearly so. If it wasn’t “steal”, it was “deadens”, or something equally reviling. I shuddered and came home feeling guilty. Like every mom, I want what’s best for my children.


Now I’m not saying I know people, but I know people. One of them is Dr. Linda Acredolo, Professor Emeritus at UC Davis and co-creator of the fabulous Baby Signs line of products. She and partner Dr. Susan Goodwyn have spent almost two decades researching and teaching infants and toddlers American Sign Language, and a significant component of their process includes educational DVDs. As a child development researcher familiar with the existing literature on the effects of television viewing on babies’ development, the remainder of this post is what Dr. Acredolo has to say about it:


Television viewing by babies is currently a controversial issue which is receiving a great deal of media coverage. Data from hundreds of studies support the conclusion that one-on-one interaction between parents and children is critically important to all aspects of early development. Of course, that should be high on every parent’s “to do” list.


However, one-on-one interaction with parents isn’t the only way children learn important lessons. In fact, a parent who constantly hovers over a child is denying that child the opportunity to discover new wonders and conquer new challenges on his own. Such challenges may come from exploring the world, reading books, playing with toys—or watching televised programming.    



The AAP has taken the strong position that children under the age of 2 shouldn’t be exposed to any televised material because “too much television can negatively affect early brain development.” Surely they’ve based this strong conclusion on a solid research foundation. 

The truth, however, is that no convincing data yet exist to support this conclusion. Sometimes a study from the University of Washington (D. Christakis et al.) is cited as evidence that TV viewing can negatively affect children’s language development. However, the details of this study, including its methodology, are flawed and warrant caution in drawing any conclusions. Even the recently reported research from the same laboratory of the effects of the Baby Einstein videos showed only a small, transitory effect on language that had disappeared by 17 months. Much more research and convincing evidence is needed before anyone can draw the conclusion that the amount of television viewing by young children influences early brain development.


What many other studies have shown, in contrast, is that it’s the content of what’s watched that matters. In fact, in a brand new study (November 2007), Christakis & Zimmerman, the researchers whose work ignited the controversy in the first place, now confirm what critics of their 2004 study have said all along: Content does matter! Specifically, they found that viewing of educational programs (e.g.,” Sesame Street” “Blues Clues,” “Barney”) before age 3 was totally unrelated to later attentional problems, while viewing of violent programs (e.g., “Power Rangers,” ” Scooby Doo”) and purely entertainment programs (e.g., “Rugrats,” “Aristocats”) was. The authors suggest the difference is due to the slower pacing and infant-appropriate language typical of educational programming—including all Baby Signs® DVDs.


On the positive side, data do show that watching television shows that elicit participation, like Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues, actually facilitates language development, as do shows that feature simple language in ways children can follow, like Clifford the Big Red Dog. Our Baby Signs® DVDs follow these same time-tested teaching strategies to promote infant learning. In fact, our own research shows that Baby Signs® DVDs actually teach babies signs—and we know that signs benefit babies in many ways, including social and emotional development as well as language and intelligence. 



I think I know why. My hunch comes from something I heard Dr. Benjamin Spock himself say once. He said that doctors often try to scare their patients in order to keep them from doing extreme things, like not taking their medications long enough. He gave the example of a doctor who says to a mother, “And if you don’t give your child these vitamins every single day, he’ll develop rickets!” He continued, “That’s how we make them pay attention!” 


I believe the AAP is really targeting parents who, routinely and for long periods of time, use TV as a babysitter, let their babies watch alone, and pay no attention to content. In other words, the AAP is trying to scare irresponsible parents into behaving responsibly. The problem is that parents who are by nature “responsible,” are now being made to feel like bad parents if they allow their babies any TV viewing at all. 



Remember the old adage, “Everything in moderation”? Well, that seems to be the safest position on this issue, too. Television, like any other tool or toy, can be a wonderful addition to a young child’s life—if the content is high in quality and it is used responsibly.


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