There is a lot about television that concerns me, especially the passive nature of TV viewing. The next time your child watches TV, look at him instead of the screen and ask yourself, “What is he doing?” or perhaps more appropriately, “What is he not doing?” Sitting in front of the television set, children are giving up opportunities for more active intellectual, emotional, artistic, and physical growth.
In general, while watching television, your child is probably not doing any of the following:
- Asking questions
- Solving problems
- Being creative
- Exercising initiative
- Practicing eye-hand coordination
- Scanning (useful in reading)
- Practicing motor skills
- Thinking critically, logically, and analytically
- Practicing communication skills
TV Viewing Time
The first two years of your child’s life are especially important in the growth and development of his brain. During this time, children need positive interaction with other children and adults. Playing interactive games is helpful for developing patience, self-control cooperation and sportsmanship.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages TV and other media use by children younger than 2 years and encourages interactive play.
For older children, total entertainment screen time should be limited to less than 1 to 2 hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs, which should be supervised by parents or other responsible adults in the home.
Where’s the harm?
So the question is, babies and toddlers don’t get anything out of watching TV, but if they seem to like it, where’s the harm? If a little TV is what it takes for you to get dinner on the table, isn’t it better for them than, say, starving? Yes, watching TV is better than starving, but it’s worse than not watching TV. Good evidence suggests that screen viewing before age 2 has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention. If “you are what you eat,” then the brain is what it experiences, and video entertainment is like mental junk food for babies and toddlers.
The problem lies not only with what toddlers are doing while they’re watching TV; it’s what they aren’t doing. Specifically, children are programmed to learn from interacting with other people. The dance of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language between a toddler and parent is not only beautiful, it’s so complex that researchers have to record these interactions on video and slow them down just to see everything that’s going on. Whenever one party in this dance, child or parent, is watching TV, the exchange comes to a halt. A toddler learns a lot more from banging pans on the floor while you cook dinner than he does from watching a screen for the same amount of time, because every now and then the 2 of you look at each other.
Just having the TV on in the background, even if “no one is watching it,” is enough to delay language development. Normally a parent speaks about 940 words per hour when a toddler is around. With the television on, that number falls by 770! Fewer words means less learning. Toddlers are also learning to pay attention for prolonged periods.
Toddlers who watch more TV are more likely to have problems paying attention at age 7. Video programming is constantly changing, constantly interesting, and almost never forces a child to deal with anything more tedious than an infomercial.
After age 2 things change, at least somewhat. During the preschool years some children do learn some skills from educational TV. Well-designed shows can teach kids literacy, math, science, problem-solving, and prosocial behavior. Children get more out of interactive programs like Dora the Explorer and Sesame Street when they answer the characters’ questions. Educational TV makes the biggest difference for children whose homes are the least intellectually stimulating.
The Benefits of Limiting TV
Once you limit the screen time, your children will discover more constructive ways to fill the time, separately and together. Some examples include:
- Taking part in outdoor activities
- Talking more to one another
How do we make this happen?
Expect to encounter resistance at first. After all, change is never easy. If yours is a household where the TV regularly blares for five, six or seven hours a day, wean the family gradually. Try cutting down by an hour a week or go cold turkey. The two-hour maximum includes time spent in front of any screen, including the computer and video games.
Make TV viewing an active choice, as if you were picking a movie from the newspaper. “How about if we watch at seven-thirty?”
Hide the remote! Eliminate channel surfing, which encourages passive viewing. When family members have to get up to change the channel, they may be more selective about the programs they watch. If nothing else, at least they’ll be getting some exercise.
When the show you wanted to watch is over, turn off the set. Also, if the program you choose isn’t compelling enough to watch actively, it’s not worth keeping on as background noise.
Make a household rule: no TV in your youngster’s bedroom. Although adolescents deserve their privacy, they hardly need another reason to isolate themselves from the rest of the family. Children should watch their favorite shows in a central area of the home. Even if you’re not sitting down with them, this allows for conversation when you’re passing through and enables you to keep closer tabs on what they’re watching.
Whenever possible, videotape programs and watch them later. Fast-forwarding through commercials will shave ten minutes off every hour of TV viewing, not to mention help your youngster hold on to her allowance longer. (When watching TV in “real time,” mute the sound during the breaks.) Taping shows ahead of time also allows you to hit the PAUSE button when you want to make a point or have a family discussion about something you’ve just seen onscreen.
Discourage repeated viewings of the same video. The graphic language, violence and sexual content of movies rated PG-13 and R can have a cumulative effect on a child if they’re watched over and over again.
Television’s Influence on Your Child
While parents often worry about television’s negative influence, it can play a positive role in children’s lives. If the programs a child watches are carefully selected, TV can provide him with good entertainment, exposure to other cultures, and positive social values. News programs can inform him about current events. Through special programs he can learn about the wonders of nature and the fascination of history. When the family watches together, TV can provide an opportunity for them to share time with one another.