[Unless otherwise indicated, the information contained in this post was obtained from a comprehensive review article on the literature pertaining to television viewing among young children.*]
Television viewing and Children is a controversial issue for parents. Some parents don't believe in ever allowing their young children to watch it, while others gladly profess to using it as the babysitter and thank Farnsworth everyday for its existence. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no child view television prior to age two. This reconfirms the convictions of parents who have banned it from their homes and left other parents wondering if they're really harming their children by allowing them to watch Baby Einstein or other shows that claim to be educational.
But what does the research show?
Basically, all the research demonstrates that television isn't nearly as educational as we'd like it to be. Children under age 2 learn far less from television than they do from real-life experiences. Kids don't even learn language from television until around 2 1/2, which is when they start to actually comprehend what they're seeing on the screen. Thus, propping your child in front of Elmo is not going to increase his vocabulary prior to that age -- especially since s/he probably can't even understand what that Muppet is saying anyway. I know I can't. In fact, Elmo, or more accurately, Sesame Street, is one program associated with reduced language growth, as is Teletubbies (for more obvious reasons).
But before you panic, other research demonstrates that some shows are associated with enhanced language growth. These include:
- Dora the Explorer
- Blue's Clues
- Dragon Tales
But remember, this enhanced language growth won't occur until around 2 1/2 anyway.
And Barney? How could we forget Barney? His show is associated with reduced overall vocabulary but increased expressive language. It must be because of all that talk about "love" and whatnot.
So, that's some of the skinny on television, or more specifically, foreground television, which is programming actually being watched by the child. But what about background television? I grew up in a house where the TV is on all the time, even when no one was watching it! Sadly, any background noise, including TV, is associated with poorer cognitive development (which may explain a thing or two about me) because it distracts the child from a play episode.
The other issue is that background television detracts from the interaction between child and caregiver, an interaction essential to increasing the complexity of the child's play. If this interaction is disrupted or reduced, the child's play is adversely affected and so is his/her cognitive development.
Television's negative impact on language development and manipulative play are the main reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no viewing prior to age two (Healy, 1998). Deficits in these areas are correlated with lower reading scores and a poorly developed prefrontal cortex, which is the Executive Function area of the brain necessary for decision-making, planning, etc.
Then, of course, there's the issue of Attention Disorders. While the research on this is still inconclusive, some studies have shown a small correlation between 1 1/2 and 3 1/2 year-olds' television viewing and later attention disorders. Much more research on this, however, needs to be done.
Finally, there's the issue of hours of viewing. Honestly, it's hard to say how many hours a day the average toddler watches. Surveys provide a mean, but the outliers are waaaay out there. Some children watch 0 hours, while others watch up to 18 hours per day! And, because this post is based on a review article, I honestly don't know how many hours of TV the subjects of the studies summarized here were actually viewing (sorry -- but I'm working with limited time here!).
So what does all this mambo-jumbo mean? In then end, I think (and this is really just my humble opinion) it means that TV in moderation (like so many other things) is okay -- even for children who are only a year old. Now, I know this goes against the AAP's recommendation, but in our litigious, puritanical society, abstinence is always the safest recommendation. And, I also think their recommendation is based upon the assumption that many parents will use the TV as the babysitter 24/7, not just sometimes, which, honestly, is necessary in this modern age when so many of us don't have a village.
What do you think?
*Anderson, D. R., Pempek, T. A. (2005). Television and very young children. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(5), 505-522.