January 23rd, 2009
10:52 AM ET

Tempering television for tots

By Shahreen Abedin
CNN Medical Senior Producer

This weekend, we took our 13-month-old to a dinner party where we were lucky enough to put the munchkin to sleep and stay up late with the grown-ups and play board games. It was so much fun, especially because we didn’t have to rush home to relieve the baby sitter. We rolled in around 2:30 a.m. Yay for us being cool parents who can manage taking the baby out and staying up late.

Come Sunday morning, different story. Baby boy woke up at 7 a.m., and my sweet husband (who usually plays with the baby on weekend mornings so I can sleep in) asked me to get up with the little one for a change. Barely awake, I took the baby into the living room, turned on the TV, and let my kid watch "Blue’s Clues."

Go ahead, call me a bad mommy. I’ve called myself that too for the same reason, even though I swear I’ve done it only when I’ve been too tired to keep the baby entertained after working all day or being seriously sleep deprived, or too busy because the office is still calling me or I’ve got a deadline to meet. Regardless, I still feel the guilt, because the American Academy of Pediatrics says no TV before age 2. Research shows kids under 30 months don’t gain any benefit from watching TV aside from being able to mimic what they see (no matter how “educational” the programming may be). And, there have been a ton of studies documenting real problems when small kids watch TV. For example, a 2007 study in the journal Pediatrics found early childhood attention problems by as early as age 3; every additional 50 minutes of watching in a day caused a measurable negative impact on the child's ability to focus later. Other studies have linked toddler tube time to problems with vocabulary development, etc.

Only when they hit preschool age do they actually stand to benefit from small amounts of educational TV, but the negative effects don’t go away when kids are older. Just last month a review of 173 different studies was published, finding a strong correlation between TV, movies, video games, other types of media exposure, and long-term poor health effects such as childhood obesity, smoking, drug abuse, teen sex, and bad grades.

But it does feel better to know that I’m not alone and in fact, I’m one of the "better" moms (at least in this respect!!!). A 2007 study in the Archives of Pediatric Medicine found that by 3 months of age, about 40 percent of kids regularly watch TV and by 24 months, the proportion shot up to 90 percent (results were based on a survey of over 1,000 American parents of kids under 2). Most of those kids started to watch by about 9 months, and they were clocking from an hour to one and a half hours daily, on average. Experts say that if the parent is interacting with the child during the TV watching, at least that improves the quality of the time, but this study found that parents watched along with their child only about one-third of the time, so the others were basically relying on the TV to serve as an electronic baby sitter.

When I talked to Dr. Laura Jana, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and a working mom herself, the first thing she did was tell me I wasn’t a bad mother. The parents who sound troubled and guilty about media exposure aren’t the ones she worries about, because at least they're aware that it's a problem. I started to feel a little better. I mean, it’s hard to have a full-time job and raise healthy kids all at once, and occasionally you’re going to have to resort to other means in order to have time to take down the laundry or throw dinner together or catch a few ZZZs in order to function at a human level. I figure, the key is to not make it a regular practice, and to limit the amount of time spent at once (like 15 to 30 mins max for a young child if at all possible). Jana suggested that if you’re going to let your tot watch TV for whatever reason, at least make sure it’s not a program containing violence or adult themes. And she suggests extending the TV experience into other learning formats. So, for example, buy a Blue’s Clues book and use it to reinforce what happened during the program.

When I’ve discussed this topic with friends in the past, invariably someone says something like, “Well when I was a kid I watched TV all the time, and I turned out just fine.” So now I’m calling on you parents out there. Do you let your small kids watch TV? How often, and do you feel guilty about it? What are your reasons for letting them do it? Is the "no TV" rule for kids under age 2 an unrealistic goal, given all the things parents have to juggle (including their sanity)? Did you watch a lot of TV as a small child, and if so, do you think it had a positive or negative effect on you?

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