The issue of kids' exposure to TV doesn’t throw off as many sparks as it used to. There is general agreement that a child's exposure to television of any type should be limited. There is also general agreement that we are completely ignoring this advice.
I remember as a kid waiting every Sunday night for Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color to come on, and loving it. I also remember my parents turning off the television when it was over. We don't do that anymore. Americans two years of age and older now spend an average of four hours and 49 minutes per day in front of the TV — 20 percent more than 10 years ago. And we are getting this exposure at younger and younger ages, made all the more complex because of the wide variety of digital screen time now available. In 2003, 77 percent of kids under six watched television every day. And children younger than two got two hours and five minutes of "screen time" with TVs and computers per day. The average American is exposed to about 100,000 words per day outside of work. Fully 45 percent of those words come from television.
The fact is, the amount of TV a child should watch before the age of two is zero.
TV Can Lead to Hostility, Trouble Focusing
For decades we have known of the connection between hostile peer interactions and the amount of kids' exposure to television. The linkage used to be controversial (maybe aggressive people watch more TV than others?), but we now see that it's an issue of our deferred imitation abilities coupled with a loss of impulse control. One personal example:
When I was in kindergarten, my best friend and I were watching The Three Stooges, a 1950s TV show. The program involved lots of physical comedy, including people sticking their fingers in other people's eyes. When the show was over, my friend fashioned his little fingers into a "V," then quickly poked me in both eyes. I couldn't see anything for the next hour and was soon whisked to the emergency room. Diagnosis: scratched corneas and a torn eye muscle. Another example comes from a study that looked at bullying. For each hour of TV watched daily by children under age 4, the risk increased 9 percent that they would engage in bullying behavior by the time they started school. This is poor emotional regulation at work. Even taking into account chicken-or-egg uncertainties, the American Association of Pediatrics estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of real-life violence can be attributed to exposure to media violence.
TV also poisons attentions spans and the ability to focus, a classic hallmark of executive function. For each additional hour of TV watched by a child under the age of three, the likelihood of an attentional problem by age seven increased by about 10 percent. So, a preschooler who watches three hours of TV per day is 30 percent more likely to have attentional problems than a child who watches no TV.
Just having the TV on while no one is watching — secondhand exposure — seemed to do damage, too, possibly because of distraction. In test laboratories, flashing images and a booming sound track continually diverted children from any activity in which they were otherwise engaged, including marvelous brain-boosting imaginative play. The effects were so toxic for kids in diapers that the American Association of Pediatrics issued a recommendation that still stands today:
Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (e.g., child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills.
Current research projects are addressing the potential effect of TV on grades, and preliminary work suggests that it affects both reading scores and language acquisition. But after age two, the worst effects on kids' brains may come because television coaxes kids away from exercise, a subject we will examine when we get to video games.
TV Aimed at Babies Not So Brainy
What about all those store shelves lined with educational videos and DVDs? They certainly claim to boost cognitive performance in preschool populations. Such boasts inspired a group of researchers at the University of Washington to do their own studies. I remember reading a series of press releases about their work one sunny day — unusual for Seattle. At first I laughed out loud, then suddenly I turned sober. The president of our university had just received a phone call from no less than Robert Iger, head of the Disney Company. The mouse was not happy. The U.W. scientists had just published research testing a product Disney makes, Baby Einstein DVDs, and the results were damning. This won't surprise you, given everything we have discussed so far. The Baby Einstein products didn't work at all. They had no positive effect on the vocabularies of the target audience, infants 17 to 24 months. Some did actual harm. For every hour per day the children spent watching certain baby DVDs and videos, the infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them.
Disney demanded a retraction, citing deficiencies in the studies. After consultations with the original researchers, the university held its ground and issued a press release saying so. After this initial flurry of activity, there was silence. Then, two years later, in October 2009, Disney made what amounted to a product recall, offering refunds to anyone who had purchased Baby Einstein materials. Responsibly, the company has dropped the word "educational" from the packaging.
After Age Five, the Jury Is Out
Since the first studies of television, researchers have discovered that not everything about TV is negative. It depends upon the content of the TV show, the age of the child, and perhaps even the child's genetics.
Before age two, TV is best avoided completely. But after age five, the jury is out on this harsh verdict — way out, in fact. Some television shows improve brain performance at this age. Not surprisingly, these shows tend to be the interactive types (Dora the Explorer, good; Barney and Friends, bad, according to certain studies). So, although the case is overwhelming that television exposure should be limited, TV cannot be painted with a monolithic brush. Here are a few recommendations for TV viewing the data suggest:
- Keep the TV off before the child turns two. I know this is tough to hear for parents who need a break. If you can't turn it off — if you haven't created those social networks that can allow you a rest — then at least limit your child's exposure to TV. We live in the real world, after all, and an irritated, overextended parent can be just as harmful to a child's development as an annoying purple dinosaur.
- After age two, help your children choose the shows (and other screen-based exposures) they will experience. Pay special attention to any media that allow intelligent interaction.
- Watch the chosen TV show with your kids, interacting with the media, helping them to analyze and think critically about what they just experienced. And rethink putting a TV in the kids' room: Kids with their own TVs score an average of eight points lower on math and language-arts tests than those in households with TVs in the family room.
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Editor's note: To view John Medina's video on this topic, click here and scroll down to the video.