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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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soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. kelli

    I let my daughter watch tv whenever she likes and most days we keep it on all day. We watch barney, wiggles, mickey ect. but we also have the interactive books that go along. she is almost 3 she has a huge vocabulary, she can resite her ABC's, 123 and knows most of her colors. I believe if you reinforce what they watch on tv it is ok, but if you use it as a baby sitter that's wrong.

    January 23, 2009 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kimberley Campbell

    I am a mother of 2 children, age 3 and one. I let both my kids watch TV. I do believe in a time limit. Somedays depending on what we have planned it can be as much as 2 hours or 20 mins a day. I believe in the saying "do what is best for you and your family." There are a lot of educational shows. Along with my help and some shows my 3 year old knows her letters and numbers and is starting to write her name.

    January 23, 2009 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Kim

    I have a 17 month old daughter. I do let her watch some T.V. She has been watching baby einstein videos since she was 9 months old. She goes through phases where if I let her watch a cartoon on t.v. or baby einstein videos she will diligently watch them, then other times she wants me to put a video in (she brings me the dvd cover indicating she wants to watch), so I'll put the video in and then she's off doing other things. I do not feel guilty letting her watch the videos. I limit her t.v. time to usually one 1/2 video or cartoon in the morning and one in the evenings usually while I'm trying to prepare my family dinner. It's a tradeoff, I cook healthy home cooked meals and my child needs to be entertained while I do it I feel. There are several nights a week where I will not put in a dvd while I'm cooking and she either has to play with her toys or come in the kitchen with mommy where I put her in a chair up by the counter and she Pretend plays that she is helping me. I think watching some t.v. is fine, it should be monitored, timed & they should only be allowed to watch things appropriate for their age. I do not feel guilty, I am a full time working mother and I do the best I can. I had it tougher as a child and I know my child is given much love and has a great life.

    January 23, 2009 at 14:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Kim

    I also want to add to the above post that if you do a variety of activities with your children you should not feel guilty if you let them watch t.v. For instance, I play & read to my daughter, we go outside, go for walks, etc. etc. It's not like we are a family who generally watches t.v. all day. I think society likes to try to dictate how we should or should not raise our kids, then you hear all this mainstream media stuff like "is watching t.v. bad for your kids?", there are professionals out their spewing their babble. I say go with your gut, what you feel good about, you are the parent, trust yourself and go with the flow.

    January 23, 2009 at 14:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Terri Saunders

    As a mother of two who works full time, I also occasionally let the TV act as babysitter to get chores done or just catch a moment for myself. We were a little better at limiting our older daughter's TV time when she was a baby and she rarely watched TV before 18 months and only occasionally after that until 2. Unfortunately, it's been a little harder to limit TV for our younger daughter (17 months). My older daughter is 4 1/2 and we let her watch 1/2 hour (occasionally more) of TV on weekdays and more (up to 2 hours per day) on weekends. It's always "educational" programming like Blues Clues or something similar. Because of this, my younger daughter watches more than I would like, but usually only on the weekends. I keep up with all of the studies on TV viewing for young people and do feel some guilt, but hey, sometimes you just need to get things done. I know I'm a good, loving mom who interacts with her children so I don't feel too guilty.

    January 23, 2009 at 17:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jennifer

    My 2 1/2 year old watches far more TV than my 8 year old did at his age. I have always tried to limit the kids hours of programming, and they tend to watch videos or PBS. My husband and I don't tend to watch TV at all. It is definitely serves a babysitter function, no doubt about it. I do feel guilty, or maybe fearful is a more accurate term. Am I harming my child to maintain my own sanity? I did watch tons of TV as a child. I came from a big family, and it tended to be a social gathering point and had a fairly interactive nature to it, with a constant commentary about what we were watching. I don't know what the right answer is, but I do know that post 1950's life, doesn't allow for a balanced lifestyle, and something has to give.

    January 23, 2009 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Jorine Campopiano

    I have a three year old and 16 month old boys, and yes I let them watch some t.v. I try not to feel too guilty about it if I limit it to 1-2 shows a day. My sixteen month old actually never pays attention to the t.v. all that much when it's on anyway, so I don't really worry about him. My three year old loves his shows and has great affinity for the characters. I only let him watch "educational" shows geared for his age group. His favorites are: Clifford (PBS), Handy Manny (DIsney) and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse (Disney). I feel he actually learns some valuable lessons from the shows.

    I do think it's a bit unrealistic for kids not to watch any t.v. before age 2, especially if they have older siblings. I think the key is moderation and making sure they are watching quality programming. Don't park you kid in front of the t.v. for hours or expose them to violent programming. But throwing on a show here or there to get a little peace and quiet during the day is actually quite refreshing, and I think makes me a better mother to get a small break during the day.

    My parents were pretty strict with t.v. I think I only watched Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, and Captain Kangaroo. I did sneak in a roadrunner here or there which I loved. But again, I think my parents did a good job moderating my intake, which I try to do with my kids today.

    January 24, 2009 at 00:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Karen

    I think that tv is ok if checking the content and not all children's shows are good. I prefer nonfiction in my own life but for a child a certain amount of fiction is useful if done right. They can identify with some funny character in a cartoon. But nature shows are great too!
    I feel the parent should watch a few to make sure of the content. Some kids shows are truly dangerous in their content. But if the parenting stops there, sure there are problems.
    We have to teach the kids to think for themselves, to filter the crap to find the beauty and truth. When they go out into the world it's the same thing...lots of crap and diamonds tossed into it.
    Around Christmas it's endless the toys that the kids are being coerced into begging their parents for. I taught this little 3 year old to just say, I like that. And not, I want that.
    We all have to learn to think for ourselves and seek the truth, beauty and goodness of life. There's a lot of muck to wade through to get there. If the parent is with the child while watching, comments can be made to guide the thinking.

    January 24, 2009 at 08:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Dawnmarie Rose

    Our youngest is 15 months old and we have not let her watch TV.

    She has a language delay (so much for them saying that too much TV causes that!) so I bought her some of the toddler sign language DVDs a few weeks ago. "First Signs" by Baby Einsteins with Marlee Matlin is excellent, as is the "My Baby Can Talk" sign language series. In just three weeks of watching them, she can sign to us over 20 different things, which is more than most children her age can speak... I can only imagine if we had started sooner with her! It helps her communicate her needs to us, and she has learned it from watching these DVDs in my lap. We do not use TV as a babysitter, we use it as an educational tool.

    The comment in the blog post that says they mimic what they see on TV is true... but isn't that how we learn things? By mimicking what we see and hear?

    January 24, 2009 at 11:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Joanne

    My daughter learned to read using a DVD series called Your Baby Can Read. She was reading her first words at 1 and read her first book before she turned 2. She is 3 now and reads at a 2nd grade level. So, I don't agree that kids under 30 months can't learn from TV. I think more studies are needed on that because it definitely was not true with my child. She also has a very long attention span.

    It is impossible to know if TV is causing problems in children or if it simply indicates the existence of problems in the home. Children who watch a lot of TV are more likely to be in dysfunctional homes, impoverished homes or have parents who don't know how to stimulate a young child. They are probably more likely to have parents with a low educational level. The more TV a child watches, the more indicative of overall problems in the home. It is important to determine if these factors, rather than TV watching itself, are responsible for later problems in children.

    In my view, 30 minutes of TV a day won't do any harm to an infant or toddler.

    January 25, 2009 at 12:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Suzy B.

    I struggle with my son and TV all the time. My husband and I committed to no TV before two, but my (now two year old) really loved programs he would see while at his grandmas' house and ask for them at home. Around 18 months I stopped beating myself up about turning on the TV for him once or twice a week. Since he's turned two it's become a more regular an entertainment option (three or four mornings a week). I know research shows it's detrimental, but he is engaged when he's watching, and it is a godsend at times. We also talk about some of the stories at other times during the day and sing the songs often. I guess only time will tell what (if any) negative impact it's had on him.

    January 25, 2009 at 19:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Dee

    I let both my kids watch small amounts of non-violent, non-commercial tv even when they were under 2 (especially the second child with the older sibling) and both are in gifted ed programs and love learning and reading books. I mostly watched tv all the time when I was growing up (with no limits) and it is how I learned English and moved on to higher education and loving books.

    January 25, 2009 at 21:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Shannon

    I am currently a certified preschool teacher and a busy mother of a five year old and two year old twins . I am usually disappointed with many of the programs, materials and toys marketed for young children. Especially the commercials! By the time my son was 3, he did not even know who all the characters on lunchboxes & bags were. As he gets older we've been able to allow and enjoy with him a variety of shows, but the only things my 2 year olds have seen have been the opening theme songs as I usher them out of the room for bedtime or naptime. And when I say educational I do not mean "abc's and 123's. That stuff is NOT what preschoolers need – they need REAL experiences, hands on activities, LOTS of stories (oral, books & music) and uninterrupted play. My husband and I are our children's favorite toys. We find ways to include them in many activities such as household chores, cooking and shopping as well as play – music, books, building, nature walks, art, etc. And yes, it is exhausting! We are not mean or strict about this rule any more so than when it comes to our children's needs for healthy food, plenty of sleep and appreciation of treats in any form (food, toys or special movie nights) Our first son did not watch television until he was 2 and then it was a "special" half hour video that we would enjoy together. I am able to take him to the store without a meltdown over a toy because he just doesn't understand that the newest thing on the shelf is what he's supposed to want. He didn't know about Dora or Cocoa Puffs cereal. I do not believe that exposing children to television at an early age gives them any lasting gains in education and it may even allow them to miss out on the more simple things that a person's early life should be evolved around – PLAY, JOY and WONDER.

    February 1, 2009 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Sherie

    I was a stay at home mom for four years. I watched my son and my nephew. We did watch tv, we watch Sesame street and Blue's Clues. I never thought I was a bad mom because of that, and I never will. It's not being bad to let your child watch tv. It's bad if you let the tv watch your child. My son is now 10, he was reading when he was four, and he is the top student in his class. Even though we watch tv, together, we also did a lot more.

    February 2, 2009 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. sean brizendine

    come on i'm from generation x and we grew up watching television practically around the clock from a distance of two feet away and look how great we turned out.

    "sean in santa rosa"

    February 3, 2009 at 13:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Becky

    Our daughter is 19 months old and we've commited to the no TV rule for her.

    April 26, 2009 at 02:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Nancy

    I have a question, I'm a stay at home mom, and I'd like to know what I'm supposed to be doing all day long (from 7am to 8pm) with my one year old??
    The AAP tells us what not to do, but can you give us an itinerary of what we're supposed to be doing?
    Yes, my son watches tv, and more than an hour or two. It's Sprout or Nick Jr, not CSI. He also has "Your baby can read" videos. He's right on track with his development.
    I too think back about how I was raised, or even how our parents were raised. How many times have the theories changed in regards to raising children, once they told women not to breastfeed, now it's the best thing.
    There's all kinds of arbitrary rightness about, and all theories. Not facts. At least not with all the variables in each home represented.
    Use common sense, find a balance, and do what you feel is right.

    February 2, 2010 at 19:30 | Report abuse | Reply
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