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To watch TV or not watch TV that is the question

By Patricia Edgar - posted Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Most parents have heard the claim that television viewing is bad for young children. Young mothers agonise over whether they should allow their young to watch television and they feel guilty when they inevitably do. Their concerns are understandable given such authorities as the UK Baroness Susan Greenfield, whose speciality is the physiology of the brain, claims modern technology is damaging children's brains. As well the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under the age of two should not watch television and recently claimed that having TV on in the house at all is bad for kids.

There is little evidence to support these widely reported claims.

Most research on television's effects has focused on school aged children. Researchers did not study media's effects on toddlers and children under three until, in 1996, a stay-at-home mother, Julie Aigner-Clark, produced a VHS video called Baby Einstein which showed a variety of toys and visuals interspersed with music, stories, numbers and words in many languages. The video was marketed across the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia and became a multi-million dollar franchise.

Mothers wanted their babies to be a Baby Einstein and in no time one in three households with babies, in the markets targeted, owned at least one Baby Einstein product. The Walt Disney Company bought Baby Einstein and the television industry pumped out television shows for babies.

Researchers then turned their attention to what children were learning from such programs, finding they learnt very little. Researchers then asked was viewing television at such a young age actually damaging to children? Pediatricians became interested and, as early as 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended against television viewing for children under the age of two. They argued 'research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional and cognitive skills'. Therefore they concluded, 'exposing such young children to television programmes should be discouraged'. The conclusion did not follow from the evidence.

In 2004 a pediatrician from Seattle, Dr Dimitri A. Christakis with a group of colleagues published an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics concluding that early television exposure was associated with attention problems at age 7 (including contributing to ADHD). They suggested efforts to limit television viewing in early childhood may be warranted but additional research was needed. The finding went viral without the qualifying statements and without the attacks on the methodology employed in the study which had followed.

Baroness Greenfield and countless advocates have distorted an argument which has no solid basis in research. Dr Ben Goldacre a British science writer, doctor and psychiatrist challenged Greenfield in the London Guardian (October 21, 2011) saying, given she had not undertaken any research or properly evaluated the available evidence she 'should set out her concerns in a scientific paper'. He's waiting.

So what do we know about young children and the effects of viewing television in any format? Shelley Pasnik, a media expert in the US, has scoured the research to answer the most commonly asked questions about young children and television. She found about 40% of children watch TV, DVDs or video every day and 75% of children have watched television before they are 2 years old. Most parents report they are in the room with their children while they watch. Children under 6 watch television about 2 hours a day yet there is surprisingly little research done on the effects on these infants and toddlers.

TV viewing does not really take the place of other activities such as playing outside. Children who watch more TV than others may do so because they are unable to go outside.

It does matter what very young children watch. Programs that are well designed and take into consideration children's developmental stages are more likely to have educational merit than those geared towards commercial ends. But the child who will benefit most is the child whose parent finds ways to interact during viewing and to take advantage of learning opportunities embedded in a program.

Children probably understand much more than we realise from television programs but it's not easy to measure their learning. When children do not understand they don't pay attention. We know they recognise specific brands promoted by television advertising and children as young as one will avoid an object after they watch an actor react negatively to it on video: they apply emotional reactions seen on television to their own behavior. There may be a connection between television viewing and obesity as the amount of time a child spends watching television also affects obesity rates. But diet matters too.

Not surprisingly children in heavy-viewing households (average 6 hours a day) are less likely to be able to read than other children and watching adult programs has been associated with reduced vocabulary. Having television playing in the background does reduce attention spans and parent-child interactions.

None of this should be surprising: it is common sense. Certainly parental rules can influence viewing and parents who have a positive attitude towards television generally view with their children.

So the answer is to use television in moderation. Used sensibly by parents - as part of a day of balanced activities ? children and families benefit. Television is helpful for relaxation, for babysitting, for giving time out and reducing conflict. Yes, interaction with parents is vital to child development but parents cannot be interacting with children all day. They need relief and opportunities to fulfill other work and family demands.

For years I have decried the banal, unimaginative, commercialism and benign morality of much of the fodder that fills children's timeslots. Interestingly Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker's television critic believes there is a renaissance in children's programming. She cites shows which respect the medium's strengths and constraints without viewing kids with disdain. Shows like the Dutch Miffy and Friends, the British Charlie and Lola, Little Bill, The Backyardigans, Yo Gabba Gabba, Wonder Pets, Phineas and Ferb which have screened on PBS, Disney and Nickelodeon as the channels search for the new blockbuster. We need more of such programs.

Asking parents to turn off television is unrealistic: as a policy goal it will fail. The argument should be about insisting children are offered quality television to watch.