When your two-year old fusses, whines, screams, throws food at the wall, and otherwise acts like Godzilla rampaging through Tokyo, the television may seem to you like the greatest invention since band-aids. Plunk most kids in front of a TV and they go zombie-quiet in a flash. But alas -- as a parenting tool, TV doesn't measure up, according to a study of 1,300 children by Michigan and Montreal universities. In fact, the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development concluded that you might be doing your child a huge disservice by allowing your kid too much TV time.
The study followed kids from infancy to the age of 10. Researchers asked the parents of the children how much TV the kids watched at 29 months (two years and five months) and 53 months (four years and five months). It revealed that, on average, the two-year-olds watched just under nine hours of TV per week and four-year-olds watched just under 15 hours. Although experts recommend that such young children limit viewing time to two hours daily, among the children studied, 11% of two-year olds and 23% of four-year-olds averaged more than that per day.
The children were revisited at 10-years of age. Their BMI (body mass index) was taken, and their teachers were asked to assess their performance in school. You don't need a Stanford PhD to guess the outcome. Summarizing the results, research leader Dr. Linda Pagani, of the University of Montreal said, "We found every additional hour of TV exposure among toddlers corresponded to a future decrease in classroom engagement and success at math, increased victimization by classmates, a more sedentary lifestyle, higher consumption of junk food and, ultimately, higher body mass index."
The study's specific list of impacts is impressive. It includes a seven percent decrease in classroom engagement among the children who exceeded the recommended daily TV viewing time, a six percent decrease in math achievement, a 10 percent increase in victimization by classmates (peer rejection, being teased, assaulted or insulted by other students), a 13 percent decrease in weekend physical activity, a nine percent decrease in general physical activity, a 10 percent jump in eating snacks, and a five percent increase in BMI. Dr. Pagani says that researchers had expected these negative impacts to disappear by the time the children turned seven, but that didn't happen. She concludes that the findings "…make a compelling public health argument against excessive TV viewing in early childhood and [an argument] for parents to heed guidelines on TV exposure from the American Academy of Pediatrics."
Of course there are other compelling arguments. A 2007 study showed that toddlers between 15 and 24 months learn new words more readily from having an adult in the room interacting with them than from TV characters like the Teletubbies. The study showed that exposure to language via television is not adequate to help toddlers learn language. It's actually rather disturbing to discover that there are enough parents who expect kids to learn to speak and communicate via the TV to even warrant such commentary, but in any event, the study showed that children do require the presence of responsive, living teachers. Clearly, talking to your toddlers and working with them as they learn to use language is indispensable for full development. On the other hand, television may be useful for learning a language when you're older. Just ask Charlize Theron, the South African actress who learned English (she grew up speaking Afrikaans) from watching TV as a teenager while living on the family farm. Then again, it should be noted that her acquisition of English did not come from casual viewing. She watched soap operas methodically to learn English when an agent told her he'd take her on as a client if she learned the language. It should also be noted that Charlize is not your average language student; she speaks 28 languages, including a number of African dialects.
Another study published in November of 2009, linked greater exposure to TV with increased incidences of aggressive behavior in toddlers. Researchers theorized that this may be because households with higher rates of TV watching impose fewer restrictions on children's viewing habits, so their exposure to television content is unregulated and thus they see more violence than other children. In addition, increased household television use may disturb normal daily routines such as eating and communication patterns and may decrease time spent on other activities, so the kids eat poorly and have fewer outlets for their energy. This study backed up an earlier study published in 2007 that showed that in children between 2.5 and 5.5 years of age, exposure to more than two hours of TV per day led to behavioral problems and poor social skills. On the bright side, heavy exposure that was subsequently reduced correspondingly reduced the risk for behavioral problems -- but, unfortunately, not the developmental problems cited earlier.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, kids under two shouldn't watch ANY television. For children over two, the AAP recommends limiting their use of TV, computers, movies, video, and computer games to no more than two hours a day. Certainly, this amount doesn't square with the seven hours and 38 minutes daily that the average eight- to 18-year-old spends immersed in movies, social networking, TV, video games, and music/audio, as I've written before. Bridging that chasm between what's good for kids and what kids actually do may be a huge challenge for parents. On the other hand, here's one intervention that may have impact: parents can start by unplugging themselves first, so that they can pay attention to their kids and show them, by example, that life can be more interesting than the latest show.