Baby Watching TV

The Effects of TV on Baby

The marketing pitch is enticing – “watch this especially produced show to make your baby smart” or “watch this video, and it will develop your baby’s brain.”  Many parents are happy to leave their kids with these shows because these shows act as good babysitters that can entertain their babies while they are busy with everyday work.  Parents do not feel guilty because they think that when their babies or toddlers are watching these shows, they give their babies “quality time”.

Programs (and videos) geared for babies are becoming popular.  Since Teletubbies has been successful in appealing to viewers under age 3, the creators of Sesame Street launched Sesame Street Beginnings that also target this age group.  A 24-hour cable channel for babies, BabyFirstTV was launched in the U.S., Canada, and other countries .  The average Canadian kid watches 14 hours of TV a week; the average American, three hours a day—two hours a day for babies.  Also, according to a University of Washington Research, 40 percent of three-month-old babies are already watching TV.

But is TV (and Video) really good for babies and infants under age 2?  According to Dimitri Christakis of Children’s Hospital in Seattle and writer of the The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids, while older children can learn from educational shows, no study has shown that babies benefit from watching television and video.  In fact, it can actually do harm:

  • The first 2 years of your kid is a critical time for brain development.  Watching TV steals time away from your kid’s exploring, interacting, playing with you and others, and actively learning by manipulating things around him.   These are activities that help your baby develop the skills he needs to grow intellectually, socially and emotionally.
  • When your kid plays, he is actively learning about how the world works.  He wires his brain by experimenting with cause and effect.   When your kid interacts with people, he meets his emotional milestones.   TV keeps your kid away from these activities.
  • The first 2 years of your child is also a critical time for learning language.  Language is only learned through interaction with others, not by passive listening to TV.  If you do not respond to your kid’s attempt to communicate, he could miss this important milestone.  Also, your child will not learn to talk by listening to TV characters baby talk or talk down to him.  He learns to talk by mimicking adult language.  He learns from the adults’ simplified but correctly pronounced speech.
  • Note that when your baby smiles at the TV, the TV does not smile back.  This may affect him socially and psychologically.

  • Dr. Sally Ward, principal speech and language therapist at the Speech, Language and Hearing Center in London,  found that over the last 20 years, an increasing number of 9-month-old children were having trouble paying attention to voices when there was also background noise coming from the TV.  This may affect their paying attention in class when they go to school.
  • A study by Dr. Ward also found that television noise drowned out any interaction between parent and child, which is vital in developing language.
  • Also, when kids who watch TV go to school, they have to make a change from being primarily visual learners to listening learners.  If a kid watches more TV than interact with the family, he will have a hard time making this transition, and his school learning will suffer.
  • Dimitri Christakis,  a  pediatrician at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, found that children who watched television as babies are more likely to have shorter attention spans, problem concentrating and impulsiveness by age 7.  He also stated that although Attention Deficit Disorder is genetic, TV can also trigger this condition because TV rewires the baby’s brain.  The still-developing brain adapts to TV’s fast pace and overstimulation.
  • Also, in his study, Christakis found that children who watched TV as babies were less able to recognize letters and numbers by the time they go to school.  A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study found that watching Sesame Street before age 3 delayed a child’s ability to develop language skills.
  • Many TV shows and videos geared to kids are actually teaching them the wrong things.  They distort reality with their cartoonish and unnatural depiction of the world.  Also, the pacing of these shows is fast and teaches the baby’s sponge-like brain to always expect fast-paced input.  The real world, as they will soon find out, is much more boring and requires patience to adapt to.
  • Many other studies have found a link between increased TV time and developmental delays, although it is not clear if a direct cause and effect exists, or if parents of those who leave their kids in front of TV are just not good teachers.   Other studies also suggested that long-term exposure to television diminishes children’s ability to communicate via reading and writing.   It can also lead to attention and learning problems in the long term.
  • According to Ari Brown, a pediatrician and member of the American Academy of Pedriatrics committee that wrote a 2001 report about babies, television and other passive media, many studies have found that children don’t really understand what’s happening on a screen until they are about 2 years old.  Once they do, media can actually be good for them.

In 2008, France’s broadcast authority has banned French channels from airing TV shows aimed at children under three years old. The High Audiovisual Council of France have found out that “Television viewing hurts the development of children under three years old and poses a certain number of risks, encouraging passivity, slow language acquisition, over-excitedness, troubles with sleep and concentration as well as dependence on screens.”

Dimitri Christakis talks about the effect of media on children

Here are tips to keep in mind regarding babies and TV watching:

  • Child experts agree that children under 2 should not watch any TV, video or any passive entertainment.
  • Instead of letting your baby watch TV, let him play and entertain himself.  Playing is an activity where your baby can derive a lot developmental benefits.
  • Engage with your baby in these activities that benefit his brain.
  • If you have to do work that requires concentration and you cannot multitask, do your work at a time when your baby is napping.  If this is not possible, let him play with toys on the floor or in the playpen instead.  Get a caregiver who interacts with your child if your child craves for human companion (which he naturally does). Click here for best baby toy ideas
  • Interact with your baby as much as possible.  He needs this to build his brain.  Respond to his smile, speech and actions.   Entertain, recite rhymes, and sing to him in an engaging way.  No show on TV can beat what you have to offer.  Your voice, touch, smell, and your reactions to things he does are what he craves.  Don’t let your baby be passive.
  • Do not expect that you can use TV and video to tutor your child or that they will have any positive effect on his brain.  At best, it should be a means for you to take a half-hour break from interacting with your child in a way that will help him developmentally.
  • If your baby has to watch TV, watch with him, and make watching an interactive event.  Reinforce what he sees on TV by talking or singing to him.
  • If you want to stimulate your baby’s brain, instead of letting him watch “educational videos”, read to him instead.  Learn about the benefits of reading to your child.

See also the The good and bad effects of TV on children
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