Television plays a central role in children's everyday lives.
Almost all American families have at least one TV set, and half own three or more.1 Two-thirds of children age six and under watch television every day, usually for around two hours.2 But television’s influence doesn’t end when a child’s favorite show is over. Even when he is involved in other activities, such as playing alone or spending time with his parents, there is likely to be a television on nearby. 3,4
A large body of research shows that too much television can have negative effects on children’s behavior, achievement, and health.5,6 Other research finds that what children are watching is as important as how much they are watching. For instance, some studies show that preschoolers who watch educational programs like Sesame Street have better academic outcomes in elementary school.7
What about younger children? Most studies on children and television involve preschoolers and older children, but researchers have recently begun to study television’s effects on children under three. The results consistently show that very young children perceive TV differently than older children and may be affected by it differently. 8
Infants and toddlers watch more TV than ever before.
The first three years of life are the most significant period of a child’s development, especially for the brain, which is growing faster than any other part of the body. During this time, a child’s brain is more receptive to positive influences—and more vulnerable to negative ones—than it will be in later years.9,109,10 years.9,10 In the late 1990s, as early brain development became a widely discussed topic, researchers began to ask about the role of television in the lives of infants and toddlers.
Around the same time, the first infant-directed videos and television programs began to appear. 11,12 As a result, infant and toddler exposure to television has increased dramatically in the last 15 years:
- Almost all infants and toddlers are exposed TV or videos every day, usually for about 1 or 2 hours. 12,13
- Around two-thirds of mothers with three-year-olds report that their child watched two hours or more per day. 14
- If background television is included, very young children are exposed to an average of four hours of television each day. 4
Early television watching can endanger healthy development.
In addition to reporting young children’s increased exposure to television, these studies have also discovered that TV in the first three years of life can have a negative impact on healthy development:
- Infant exposure to television has been linked to delayed language development and kindergarten readiness skills. 15,16
- Early exposure to TV has also been connected to attention disorders and sleep problems. 17,18
- TV use at age three has been linked to behavior problems and to long-term effects on social development, classroom engagement, and academic achievement. 14,19,20
Television, videos, and DVDs are not effective teachers.
Advocates of infant-directed programs and videos claim that these products can benefit children. Most are marketed as educational tools that promote brain development and cognitive skills. 11 In a survey of over 1,000 families, parents shared their reasons for allowing their infants and toddlers to watch TV and videos. The most common reason was the belief that “the television and video programs that I have my child watch teach him/her something or are good for his/her brain”. 13
However, claims like these are not supported by research. Studies generally find that for children younger than three years, television, videos, and DVDs are not effective teachers. 21-23 Even worse, they may crowd out healthier activities and set the stage for heavier television use throughout childhood. 12
Based on these concerns, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends that children under age two do not watch television, and that older children watch only one or two hours of quality programming. 24
Babies' brains are not ready for television.
Why does TV affect very young children differently than older children? The answer involves the remarkable changes that are happening in the brain during the first three years of life. When a baby is born, his brain has about all of the neurons (or nerve cells) it will ever have. But the job of forming connections between them is still underway. This is especially true in brain areas that support advanced abilities like memory and abstract thought.10
Although watching television is a passive activity, understanding television requires certain skills. In the first few years of life, many of these skills are only beginning to develop. To a baby, television is a stream of 2-dimensional pictures that change about every 6 seconds and have no apparent connection to each other, to the sounds coming from the same direction, or to real people and objects. Before a child can learn from television, he must be able to connect these images into a meaningful whole. 25
For the first six months, a baby understands little of what he sees on the screen. TV’s colors and sounds may capture his attention for brief periods, but he lacks the ability to process what he is watching or to pay attention for long. 12
Later in the first year, as his cognitive and perceptual abilities continue to improve, a baby may be able to recognize people and objects on the screen. He is unlikely, however, to grasp how images relate to each other and to the real objects they represent. 26
Most researchers agree that meaningful learning from television is unlikely before age three, when children begin to understand the relationship between TV and reality. 12,26
Children do not have to watch television to be affected by it.
In many households with children, the television is on most or all of the time, whether or not someone is watching. Half of children’s TV exposure consists of background television—television that a child can see or hear even though he is not actively watching. 2,4,26
Everyday activities like singing, playing, and exploring help babies and toddlers sharpen their cognitive abilities and motor skills, but the frequent distractions caused by background television can hinder this process. Young children are less able to focus on active, hands-on play while the television is on. Background TV can threaten cognitive and language development and may be linked to attention problems later in childhood. 17,28
Babies and toddlers are social learners.
Although a baby’s brain is not wired to understand television, it is well-equipped to learn from social interactions. At birth, the brain networks that support interactive learning have already begun to develop. A newborn can recognize faces and voices and is sensitive to social cues such as eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice. 29 These cues are learning aids that help babies and toddlers understand their surroundings.
Numerous studies have shown that babies learn better from people than from pictures. For instance, infants and toddlers who see a live demonstration of a simple task are more likely to remember it than those who watched a video of the same task. This “video deficit” continues until around age three and possibly beyond. 26 Positive interactions with parents and caregivers provide the social and emotional context that a baby needs in order to learn effectively.
When the television is on, quality time suffers.
Many educational programs and videos for infants and toddlers claim to benefit children by providing opportunities for parent-child interactions. Research provides several reasons why this is unlikely to be true:
- Even during children's first three years, educational content makes up only half of what they watch. 13
- When the television is on, even in the background, parents talk and play with their infants less often. When they do, they are less attentive and engaged. 4,15
- Even when children are watching programs and DVDs designed to promote interaction, parents watch with them less than half the time. 8,13
Positive interactions are the best learning experiences a child can have.
Over ten years have passed since the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its recommendation that children under age two do not watch television and that older children watch only one or two hours per day. At that time, there was little research on television’s effects on infants and toddlers. Studies that have appeared in the past decade, however, support the Academy’s position.
A heavy diet of television provides only empty calories for a child’s growing brain. Active, hands-on play and warm, responsive parenting nourish children’s early development. Because more time in front of the screen means less time for play and shared activities, TV’s increasing presence in the daily lives of young children has dire implications. The evidence is clear: Parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers can promote learning, achievement, and health by taking television off the menu.
So what can we as caregivers do?
Turning on the television might seem like the easy solution, but the truth is that there are other ways for even the busiest family members to entertain our children…
- Talk to your child; tell him or her a story about your day, about the weather, about an imaginary world, about anything!
- Sing to your child; the tones, pitches, and noises are all new and exciting!
- Point out and count new objects and let your baby touch them. Believe it or not, babies can start learning basic mathematical concepts by simply watching you count something!
Want more ideas? Check out:
We all heard the warning as kids: “That TV will rot your brain!” You may even find yourself repeating the threat when you see young eyes glued to the tube instead of exploring the real world. The parental scolding dates back to the black-and-white days of I Love Lucy, and today concern is growing amid a flood of video streaming on portable devices. But are young minds really being harmed?
With brain imaging, the effects of regular TV viewing on a child's neural circuits are plain to see. Studies suggest watching television for prolonged periods changes the anatomical structure of a child's brain and lowers verbal abilities. Behaviorally, even more detrimental effects may exist: although a cause-and-effect relation is hard to prove, higher rates of antisocial behavior, obesity and mental health problems correlate with hours in front of the set.
Now a new study hits the pause button on this line of thinking. The researchers conclude that the entire body of research up to now has overlooked an important confounding variable, heredity, that could call into question the conventional wisdom that TV is bad for the brain. Further study will be needed to evaluate this claim, but the combined evidence suggests we need a more nuanced attitude toward our viewing habits.
Replaying the evidence
To understand the argument against television, we should rewind to 2013, when a team ofresearchers at Tohoku University in Japan, led by neuroscientist Hikaru Takeuchi, first published findings from a study in which the brains of 290 children between the ages of five and 18 were imaged. The kids' TV viewing habits, ranging from zero to four hours each day, were also taken into account. Takeuchi and his colleagues found that the more television these kids watched, the bulkier the brain's hypothalamus, septum, sensorimotor area and visual cortex became. These areas are implicated in multiple processes, including emotional responses, arousal, aggression and vision, respectively. In addition, the brain showed thickening in a frontal lobe region, the frontopolar cortex, that is known to lower language-based reasoning ability. Testing confirmed that verbal IQ scores, which measure vocabulary and language skills, fell in proportion to the hours of TV the children watched. The changes in brain tissue occurred regardless of the child's sex or age or his or her family's income.
Some of these brain differences could be benign: an increase in the visual cortex's volume is likely caused by exercising eyesight while watching TV. But thickening in the hypothalamus is characteristic of patients with borderline personality disorder, increased aggressiveness and mood disorders. Perhaps watching TV shows, with their high density of drama, action and comedy, engages circuits of arousal and emotion such that these areas, rather than circuits of intellect, strengthen. This change could lead to psychological and behavioral issues. Previous studies have shown that for each additional hour of television watched in childhood, the odds of developing symptoms of depression increase by 8 percent and the odds of being convicted of a crime increase by 27 percent. And other findings suggest that for every two hours watched in one's youth, the odds of developing type 2 diabetes increase by 20 percent.
There are many possible explanations for these links. TV viewing is generally sedentary and solitary, denying children many health benefits of physical activity and socialization. The development of verbal proficiency, reasoning and other intellectual abilities could atrophy from passively viewing a screen. “Guardians of children should consider these effects when children view TV for long periods,” Takeuchi and his colleagues concluded.
But the correlation between TV viewing and brain and behavioral changes does not necessarily tell us the whole story. The quandary scientists face is determining whether TV viewing causes changes in brain and behavior or whether preexisting personal traits or other conditions underlie binge watching.
Fast-forward to the new study, by criminologists Joseph Schwartz of the University of Nebraska Omaha and Kevin Beaver of Florida State University. Schwartz and Beaver analyzed middle and high school students to look for associations between TV viewing and a range of factors such as race, gender, antisocial behavior and incarceration for violent crimes. Researchers checked back with nearly 15,000 of these children about two years later and again after they had reached adulthood, between the ages of 18 and 26. Much like previous studies, they found that young adults who had watched more television during early adolescence were more likely to engage in antisocial behavior, to be arrested at least once and to be incarcerated as an adult.
The researchers then added one more factor to their analysis. The study included more than 3,000 sibling pairs (that is, half-siblings, full siblings, and identical and nonidentical twins). The correlation between nearly all the negative behavior and time spent watching TV vanished after the researchers statistically accounted for relatedness. Genetics, they concluded, shapes brain and behavior, which in turn has wide-ranging consequences, including how many hours of TV individual children tend to watch and how their brains respond to it. “For example,” Schwartz says, “children with increased predisposition toward aggressive behavior may be more drawn to TV.” Similarly, those who are genetically inclined to depression or obesity may be more likely to spend their free time watching TV in the family room rather than shooting hoops on the basketball court.
Research suggests that heredity accounts for approximately half of the risk of developing antisocial behavior, with the remaining risk explained by environmental influences. In particular, genes that influence neural signaling involving dopamine and serotonin are associated with increased criminality, antisocial behavior and psychological disorders. “[Our findings] suggest that the changes in neurobiological functioning observed by Takeuchi et al. would have occurred regardless of the actual amount of television watched,” Schwartz says.
It would appear that researchers have been weighing the evidence out of balance by neglecting the important factor of heredity in TV habits. But this chicken-or-egg dilemma resolves as it does with real chickens: this is an interdependent cycle. For instance, a 1990 study comparing adopted and nonadopted children raised in the same home found that genetics was the most important factor in determining how many hours of TV kids watched. But the study also found that the higher a mother's IQ, the fewer hours both her biological and adopted children spent glued to the tube.
Everyone's brain is different, and what you do with your brain—especially at a young age, when it is developing—does affect its physical structure and function. If a child has inherited risk factors predisposing him or her to behavioral difficulties, he or she will likely spend more time watching TV, but doing that is not helping the situation. “Watching more TV may trigger various neurobiological changes that ultimately exacerbate any underlying inclinations toward aggressive behavior,” Schwartz warns. In such cases, limiting exposure to TV could be helpful. For other children, TV may not have this risk.
Recognizing this fact, parents will want to regulate their children's TV viewing in the context of those children as individuals. Ultimately, Mom is right: the more time spent sitting on the couch, the less time spent in physical activity, reading, and interacting with friends. The lack of physical activity and intellectual pursuits has obvious physical and cognitive consequences. TV may or may not rot the brain, but sitting perched in front of the screen for so long does seem to waste it.