by Elizabeth Pantley

So much television programming is aimed at young children. Much of it appears to be educational: teaching the ABC's and life skills. When is it appropriate to introduce a baby to television, and what do parents need to know about this topic?

A great deal of research has been done on the effects of television on children’s lives. The first step in making the decision is to get the facts. Because nearly all of us have one or more TV sets in our home, and since most of us watch some TV nearly every day, we may not want to hear what research tells us, but these are things parents need to know.

- Experts suspect that babies younger than two years old view TV as a confusing array of colors, images, and noises. They don’t understand much of the content. Since the average TV scene lasts five to eight seconds, your baby or toddler doesn’t have enough time to digest what’s happening.

- Cartoons and many children’s shows are filled with images of violence. If you find this hard to believe, surf the TV on Saturday morning. The realism portrayed in today’s cartoons has moved light years beyond the Bugs Bunny type of violence. Many children’s shows almost are animated versions of adult action films. Research shows that exposure to this type of programming increases the risk of aggressive behavior and desensitizes children to violence.

- Babies and toddlers have a very literal view of the world. They can’t yet tell the difference between real and pretend, and they interpret what they see on TV as true life. Research has demonstrated that many young children believe that TV characters actually live inside the TV set. This can confuse young children’s understanding of the world and get in the way of their learning what’s right or wrong. It can paint a picture of a frightening, unstable, and bewildering world - and your little one does not yet have the faculties to put what he sees into proper perspective.

- Television watching can be addictive. The more that children watch, the more they want to watch. Even toddlers can become drawn to the set. Once addicted, turning off the TV can become a daily battle. Children who watch TV excessively often become passive and lose their natural creativity; they eventually have a hard time keeping themselves busy, and they lose valuable time that should be dedicated to “play” ¾ the foundation of a healthy childhood and the primary way that very young children learn.

- Parents sometimes unwittingly begin to use TV more and more as a way to keep their children happy and quiet. It takes a strong will and dedication to avoid the easy route provided by this free and easy and yet sometimes dangerous babysitter.

- Children experience unparalleled physical, mental, and emotional growth in the early years of life. Time spent watching television is time taken away from more healthful activities that nurture growth and development.

- Children who watch a lot of television during their early years are at risk for childhood obesity, poor social development, and aggressive behavior. They often have trouble adjusting to preschool or kindergarten. According to a study by Yale Family Television Research, teachers characterized children who watched excessive television as less cooperative, less imaginative, less enthusiastic about learning, and less happy than those who watched little or no TV.

- Due to all the above reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents not allow children under two to watch any television.
You may have noticed that all of these points demonstrate the negative aspects of letting babies and toddlers watch TV, and you’re wondering if there are any positives. There are a few, but I’ll be honest: I had to be very creative to come up with this list, since published research doesn’t demonstrate many good points for putting a young child in front of a television. But we need to be realistic and acknowledge that most of us aren’t going to put our TVs in the closet until all of our children start school. Here are some of the good points of television for children:

- Quality children’s programming can teach your child basic academic skills, such as the ABCs, counting, addition, science fundamentals, basic language skills, manners, and even early reading skills.

- Your child can view things she might not otherwise see in daily life: exotic animals, distant lands, musical instruments, historical places, and diverse lifestyles. Your child can learn about the world beyond her home and neighborhood.

- Your child can learn basic social skills from watching wholesome programming: how to play with other children, how to use good manners.

- Using extraordinarily careful selection and restraint, a little bit of television can provide a parent with much-needed down time, or time to catch up on tasks that need adult-only attention.

TV watching tips for parents of babies and young children
The following tips may help you minimize the negative and maximize the positive effects of television watching for your little one:

- Hold off introducing television, even videos to your baby as long as possible. If you wait until your child’s second birthday, you can consider yourself incredibly successful in starting your little one off well and with the kind of real-life interaction that is so important for his development. If you decide to allow TV before your child turns two, choose programming carefully, limit viewing time and skip days when possible. (Daily viewing easily becomes habit.) The less watching time, the better! Set a goal, such as no more than 30 minutes or an hour per day, or one favorite show, so that you’ll not be tempted to turn the TV on too frequently.

- Watch programs yourself before you allow your baby or toddler to watch them. Just because a network markets a show to young children doesn’t mean it will reflect your own family’s morals and values. You will be amazed to discover that many programs aimed at children contain violence or topics that are inappropriate for your child. Don’t assume that your baby can pick out the moral message from a program that features violence or conflict on the way to an important lesson.

- Pay attention to commercials - surprisingly, an excellent children’s show will sometimes feature commercials that depict the exact things you don’t want your little one to see!

- Choose programs that are developmentally appropriate for your child. For you, this means shows that are slow, boring, and probably somewhat goofy. But choose programs from your child’s perspective, not your own.

- Invest in a collection of appropriate and educational videos for your child so that you won’t be confined to network programming schedules when you are ready to let your little one watch something.

- Watch along with your child when you can so that you can monitor your child’s reactions to what he’s seeing. Invite questions and discuss what you are watching so that you can understand your little one’s take. Point things out and talk about what is being taught to get the most of out of educational TV. You may even follow up with some lessons afterwards.

- Avoid keeping the TV on when no one is actively watching. Many people do this and are used to the background noise the set generates, but your child will almost surely be exposed to programming that is inappropriate for her.

- Make a conscious decision about how you will use television in your family; don’t watch it by accident or default.

This article is a copyrighted excerpt from Gentle Baby Care by Elizabeth Pantley. (McGraw-Hill, 2003)


Click here to add your own comments

by: Anna

As a parent of three children, ages 5 and two 4 year olds, I will say that after we've spent a day bowling, playing outside, eating lunch with friends, and making art that we watch television, and I don't feel guilty about it.

It was also a necessary evil back in the day of having infant twins and a toddler to care for by myself.

I believe that people should be aware of WHAT their children are watching more so than worrying over the horrors of an hour of television here and there.

PBS, Noggin w/o commercials in the morning time and Baby Einstein videos were all lifesavers for me at one time or another. My kids do not watch any old Saturday morning cartoon, or things like Spongebob. I fully believe there *is* a vast difference in the content of the programming of shows. There is also a difference between abandoning your child in front of the television and allowing them to be entertained for 30 minutes, twice per day, while you accomplish other tasks.

Now that they are older, we are watching History and National Geographic and Electric Company (old-school) DVDs. The little ones ask for a cartoon from time to time, but it's still Max and Ruby or Maggie and the Ferocious Beast.

I respect Elizabeth Pantley. We've used her No Cry Sleep Solution Books for infancy and preschool age. I do have to say though, this article comes across as a little judgmental and without much thought to a real-life application of caring for multiple young children and needing to attend to household and self from time to time. There is a balance to be had between both worlds.

Great Guidelines
by: Teaching Tiny Tots

Thank you Anna for your comment! I think you bring out a good point...concentrating on what you do allow your child to watch is much more effective.

I think Elizabeth provides some excellent guidelines to consider when introducing television to young children.

Parents have become increasingly aware of the negative effects too much television can have upon children. Concerned parents do try to select what their children watch and for how long.

I think while we have tried to follow most of these guidelines, I'll be the first to admit that there were just some days, I needed a little "extra" time to catch up on something!

Great Article
by: Mindi Dagerman

I really enjoyed this article. I think that it is important for parents to know what their children are watching. Thanks for the article.

Thank You
by: katrina

Excellent article! I have read the comments in response to this article. I am a parent, so I know how tempting the television is as a babysitter and entertainer for chidren. I am also a pediatric health care provider and I know all that Elizabeth is attempting to do here is to let you know what the research states - not giving her own list & labeling anyone bad or good as a parent. Television is detrimental to children under the age of two years. Research proves it. Turn your babies away from the television if you must have it on longer than this. All children should be limited to less than 2 hours of screen time daily. With computers, video games and television in that category, this should extremely diminish the amount of time your child is in front of the television.
Please parents, I know how hard it is to turn off the TV set, but you are your child's best role model - turn it off & play games, read, garden, walk, etc. You will not regret it - ever.

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