Yes, watching TV is better than starving, but it’s worse than not watching TV. Good evidence suggests that screen viewing before age 18 months 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 have a TV in your home, here’s what you should know. Watching TV is better than starving, but it’s worse than not watching TV. Good evidence suggests that screen viewing before age 18 months has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention. One study found that kids who watch more than five hours of television a day are more likely than other kids to have behavioral difficulties such as hyperactivity and aggression. Another study found that for every hour of television a child watches each day between ages two and four, their risk of becoming obese increases by 13%.
Screen time (TV, computer, tablet) is bad for your baby. Yes, TV is better than starvation, but it’s worse than not watching TV. While you may think that your child is developing new skills and knowledge by watching, the evidence shows that screen viewing before age 18 months has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention.
Yes, watching TV is better than starving. But the evidence suggests that screen viewing before age 18 months has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention.
Children younger than 18 months shouldn’t watch too much TV. Good evidence suggests that screen viewing before this age has lasting negative effects on children’s language development, reading skills, and short term memory. It also contributes to problems with sleep and attention.
Babies Watching Tv at 3 Months
Parents are often shocked when I tell them that pediatricians think it’s a bad idea for children to watch TV or use mobile apps before age 18 months, because most toddlers already have. Surveys tell us that 92.2% of 1-year-olds have already used a mobile device, some starting as young as age 4 months.
Early Brain Development
I hear a lot of parents say, “But my baby likes it!” Infants may stare at the bright colors and motion on a screen, but their brains are incapable of making sense or meaning out of all those bizarre pictures.
It takes around 18 months for a baby’s brain to develop to the point where the symbols on a screen come to represent their equivalents in the real world.
What infants and toddlers need most to learn is interaction with the people around them. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t video-chat with a distant grandparent or a deployed parent, but when it comes to day-to-day learning they need to touch things, shake them, throw them, and most of all to see the faces and hear the voices of those they love the most. Apps can teach toddlers to tap and swipe at a screen, but studies tell us that these skills don’t translate into real-world learning. See Healthy Digital Media Use Habits for Babies, Toddlers & Preschoolers.
Where’s the Harm?
So sure, 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 18 months 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 two 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, and 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.
What You Can Do:
Naturally, children learn more when they watch TV or use apps with a parent. Content matters, a lot. All programs educate kids about something, but stick with ones that are designed to teach children stuff they should actually know like language and math.
Regardless of content, cap your child’s electronic entertainment time at 1 hour a day from age 18 months to age five.
Remember, too, TV is still TV whether you actually watch it on a TV screen or on a mobile phone or computer.
Watching Tv with Baby in the Room
It might not come as much of a surprise that 92 percent of 1-year-olds have already had some exposure to mobile devices, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Handing your baby your phone or tablet — or putting on the TV — can provide a welcome distraction when you’re stuck in traffic, waiting in line or just trying to get dinner on the table.
But as much as screen time can sometimes help parents, it’s not the best thing for babies and young toddlers. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children under 18 months have no exposure to screens (unless they’re video chatting with a family member or friend). And even kids older than 1½ should watch or play with screen-based media in small, supervised doses.
Why is TV bad for babies?
Simply put, screen-based media including TV, “educational” videos, games and e-books on phones or tablets doesn’t support early learning and brain development.
During the first two years of life, babies and toddlers undergo massive advances in cognitive, language, motor and social-emotional skills. (Compare an infant who can’t yet smile to a walking, talking 2-year-old, and you get the idea!) This learning happens best when children explore and interact with the world — and the people — around them, says the AAP.
Even if a show, app or game seems to have an educational message, babies and young toddlers aren’t getting much of a brain boost. Children under 18 months don’t understand how digital symbols on a screen relate back to the real world, so they’re unable to take away meaningful lessons or information from their screen session.
Not only does screen time not deliver benefits for babies and young toddlers, it can actually negatively affect language development, reading skills and short-term memory, according to the AAP. It can also disrupt a child’s sleep and capacity to pay attention.
More About Toddler Playtime
If you need a break from holding or entertaining your baby, or you need to chop the veggies for tonight’s dinner — or simply grab a shower — set your baby up in a seat or on a blanket with a few toys, in a spot where you can see and hear each other. She’ll enjoy that just as much as Daniel Tiger or Peppa Pig, and your interactions — even if it’s just you making the occasional comment or giving a quick glance — will teach her far more than any show could.
The one exception to this rule? It’s fine for babies or toddlers to FaceTime chat with a family member or friend when your child can’t see them in person, the AAP notes. Even though the activity is screen-based, your child is still getting that personal interaction that’s so crucial to her development. Just make sure the video chatting isn’t taking the place of real life playing and exploring.
When can kids watch TV?
Babies shouldn’t watch TV or use screen-based media, the AAP says. It’s okay to introduce small amounts of high-quality, supervised screen time to toddlers after 18 months, but if you can wait until your child turns 2, that’s even better. From ages 2 through 5, you should cap media use to no more than an hour a day, says the AAP.
By age 2, children have some capacity to learn skills — including math, literacy, problem-solving and healthy social behavior — from high-quality TV shows, videos or games. But even then, they’ll need some help. Your child will get more out of screen time when you watch content with her and talk about it afterwards, as opposed to watching alone while you do something else.
Tips for managing toddlers and TV
As your older toddler starts exploring the world of screens, it’s hard to stop her from asking for one more episode. But you can foster a healthy relationship with media by choosing quality programming and setting smart limits.
- Be choosy about media. Short, gentle shows designed for toddlers that encourage interaction are best. (Find age-appropriate suggestions at Common Sense Media.) If your child plays with an app, always preview it first. Thinking about trying an ebook? Paper books tend to be less distracting, but if you go the screen-based route, try to pick stories without too many extras and read with your child, just like you would for a real book.
- Watch with your child when you can. Co-viewing encourages conversations that help your child get more out of screen time. Ask questions about characters or scenes while you watch together or use something on the show as a starting point for a chat later.
- Keep screens out of the bedroom, and avoid watching at least two hours before bed. Both will help your child sleep better.
- Don’t leave the TV on in the background. Even when no one’s actually watching, background content is distracting and discourages in-person interactions. In fact, parents say around 170 fewer words per hour to their toddler with the TV on in the background, compared to when the screen is off, the AAP says.
- Encourage other activities. Don’t make screen time the default activity. When there’s free time, head outside for some active play, set the stage for imaginative play or get creative with art supplies.
- Avoid using media as a soother. Screen time can distract your child when she’s feeling impatient or having trouble staying calm, like on a flight or during a doctor’s visit, but it makes it harder for her to learn how to deal with her emotions in a healthy way.
- Skip the commercials. Kids under 8, especially those under 6, don’t understand the difference between a show and an ad — especially if a favorite character is involved. Opt for streaming shows without commercials or skip over them whenever you can.
- Don’t buy into a show or game just because it’s kid-friendly. Most shows and apps that claim educational value don’t actually have the research to back that up. And even platforms geared towards children, like YouTube Kids, come packed with ads and have the potential to expose kids to inappropriate content, according to Common Sense Media.
Steering clear of screens before at least 18 months can be challenging. But what you might lose in convenience, your cutie will gain in opportunities for in-person interaction and learning experiences. And those benefits are well worth it.