Screen Time

Can babies benefit from the multitude of videos, DVDs, and television shows designed for them? Multiple research studies suggest that media and babies don’t mix.

Long-term impact

Too much time spent in front of electronic screens before the age of 3, and later in childhood as well, may have potential negative effects on children’s learning and health through adolescence.

While the latest technology and educational programming have much to offer, child development experts say we have little understanding of how viewing life on a screen affects the youngest of our children, and no research supports the idea that electronic games and programs for babies promote learning. Since 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no screen time at all for babies younger than 2.

The human touch

Crucial brain growth and development occurs during the first two years of life. That brain development is guided by a baby’s environment, and is shaped by talking, touching, listening, tasting, and other sensory experiences. Researchers want to know if there is an effect on infant development if some, or much, of that real-world experience is replaced by time spent in front of a two-dimensional screen. In a recent study by the University of Massachusetts, researchers observed a group of 12- to 15-month-olds who were shown by a person how to use a puppet, while another group of infants saw the demonstration on video. The first group of children was able to replicate the task after watching it being done once. The second group needed to watch the video six times before they could imitate it. These results highlight the importance of human interaction to infants’ learning.

Other ongoing studies investigate how babies process and transfer information viewed on a screen, and at what age they are able to learn and recall what they’ve seen. These studies support the finding that babies can learn from two-dimensional viewing, but that it is more difficult to process the information. This research also reveals that babies watch and absorb scenes on television earlier than we might assume. Six-month-old babies showed some memory of images they had seen on TV, leading researchers to caution parents that babies may be watching before we know, and that an awareness of what is on the screen while baby is in the room is prudent. One study has shown that children as young as 12 months respond to emotions expressed by actors on television with their own positive or negative emotions, confirming that adult programming can impact infant feeling and experience.

TV and school readiness

A link between poor achievement at school in adolescence and excessive television watching during childhood is supported by a recent study that followed 500 children through adolescence. Study results suggest that excessive television viewing between the ages of 5 to 11 years was a significant indicator that a child would not obtain a college degree, and continued excessive viewing from the ages of 13 to 15 years predicted a failure to obtain a high school diploma.

Other studies suggest that the content of television programming, rather than the quantity, makes a difference. In one study of 236 children ages 2 to 7, those who watched general entertainment television (cartoons, music videos, and sports) performed more poorly on tests of school-readiness skills than children whose viewing was limited to age-appropriate educational programming. The data of this study and others led researchers to conclude that the impact of television on early academic skills depends in part on the content of the programs viewed.

Media violence

Many studies have looked at the link between media violence and children’s behavior. The evidence suggests that playing violent video games decreases children’s ability to manage frustration without lashing out. How realistic or graphic the violence looks on the game or screen may or may not matter substantially. There is some evidence that even cartoon violence without blood can increase children’s tendency to be aggressive.

TV and childhood obesity

Toddlers and preschoolers are at increased risk for another potential lifelong effect from excessive television viewing: obesity. A study of a thousand 2- to 5-year-olds found that those who watched two or more hours of television a day were three times more likely to become overweight than children who did not watch TV. Electronic game playing increased sedentary time to 3.5 hours each day, also increasing the risk of obesity.

Advertising in between the programming complicates the mix, as television appears to be a powerful influence in shaping food preferences, and TV ads lay a tempting table of foods high in sugar and low in nutrients. Children’s preferences for these snack foods and cereals they see advertised, combined with inactivity, increase their risk for obesity.

Experts on children and the media stress that healthy development relies on a balance of physical and cognitive activities. TV can rock that balance, making children’s days lopsided toward sitting and passively absorbing an unfiltered assortment of influences. Experts urge parents to limit their child’s media exposure to 30 minutes or less a day, and to monitor the content, minimizing their children’s exposure to cartoons and violent images. They also stress that the negative effects of TV can be reduced, and the benefits of educational programming increased, when parents watch alongside their children, and talk about the powerful images they are consuming.

Parents of babies under 2, however, must be aware of the value of interactive play—the talking and exploration that best supports brain development. A book read with a loving caregiver, along with talking, pointing, and holding, is how babies and media best mix.

Sources: Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 160 (2006): 387–92; Child Development 72 (2001): 1347; Child Development 74 (2004): 221–37.

The Parent Review newsletter publishes the latest research findings in child development, learning, and health. Written for expectant and new parents and the professionals supporting them, The Parent Review bridges science and parenting to offer the best and most relevant research-based news. To learn more, visit www.theparentreview.com.

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