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Researchers are using the scientific approach to establish what many parents know intuitively – children under two years of age should not be watching TV.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recently released a policy statement which advises parents of the potential harm to babies watching TV, videos and other passive forms of media.

This policy statement reaffirms the 1999 statement with respect to media use in infants and children younger than 2 years and provides updated research findings to support it. This statement notes:

  1. There is a lack of evidence supporting educational or developmental benefits for media use by children younger than 2 years.
  2. The potential adverse health and developmental effects of media use by children younger than 2 years.
  3. Adverse effects of parental media use (background media) on children younger than 2 years.

The AAP estimates that the average one-year old is exposed to 1 – 2 hours of screen time per day. Some programming is targeted specifically at the ‘infant/toddler’ age group, and well-intentioned parents may see this as beneficial.

The findings of this study include:

Imagery does not get through to young children.

Researchers noted that children do not distinguish imagery on TV screens the way older children and adults do. To a young child, the TV screen is more of a glowing box. This may help insulate young children from the many disturbing scenes on TV which are unavoidable. (Even ‘family viewing’ channels often carry commercials with violent or inappropriate imagery for young children.) But it also means that programming aimed at this young demographic is not delivering the benefits to young viewers which parents may expect.

May discourage speech development.

“When the TV is on, the parent is talking less. There is some scientific evidence that shows that the less talk time a child has, the poorer their language development is,” according to Dr. Ari Brown, a member of the AAP. Studies cited in the guidelines say that parents interact less with children when the television is on, and that a young child at play will glance at the TV — if it is on, even in the background — three times a minute.

Link between early TV exposure and later attention problems.

A report released in 2003 by the AAP concludes that there is a link between early TV viewing and hyperactivity and attention disorders in later developmental years. Specifically, 10 percent of over 2500 children who viewed TV daily between the ages of 1 and 3 years had attention problems at age 7. While these findings are inconclusive, the AAP called the findings “concerning”.

May interfere with sleep.

While supporting research is needed, a 2005 report from the AAP points to a link between TV viewing and irregular sleep schedules among children under the age of three years. Although the actual consequences of TV-induced sleep problems require further study, every parent knows that uninterrupted sleep is precious for both the child and the parent!

The current AAP policy statement is by no means a stand-alone report. The report notes that over the past 12 years there have been over 50 studies on the effects of media influence on babies and toddlers, and the consensus indicates that children under the age of two do not understand actions presented through on-screen media.

A few thoughts which are not addressed in the AAP report also have a bearing on this discussion. When visiting the home of my close friends, who are excited about being new grandparents, I couldn’t help but notice the changes they made to the living room. Their daughter and son-in-law were visiting for a week, with 8 month old child, and the room had been “child-proofed”.

The heater was blocked by a few large cushions on the floor, the cat food and water bowls were set out on the porch, the stairs were fenced off and everything on the tables was pushed in towards the middle so nothing could be pulled off the edges.

But the jolly jumper was set up directly facing, and within a few feet of the TV. This way the child, like the adults, would face the center of attention in the room – the TV.

TV is not the center of the universe.

Babies are smarter than we give them credit for. When the family is seated and focused directly at the TV, it gives the child the message that TV is an all- important, central point of interest. And while there are many wonderful programs available on TV, the pervasive influence of media today may make longstanding impressions on young minds. Media is largely consumer driven, and our notions about consumption can be influenced at an early age. If we want our children to embrace the values of sustainable living, care must be taken to limit their exposure to marketing messages which compete with our teaching that restraint is part of being responsible consumers.

Our children grew up without TV in the home. Evenings and free time was filled with other activities and there was never a shortage of interesting ways of spending the time together. The children never longed for TV. Now that we are older and have the benefit of perspective, I see how fleeting the early childhood years are, and how precious this time is for parent/child bonding. Young parents have competing demands for their time, and have to balance their jobs or career with building a home and family, and hopefully leave some time for personal development. It is so easy to use the TV as a babysitter. But my feeling is that time spent with children when they are young builds a lifetime of rewards for child and parent, and any time you can substitute TV with personal interaction is time well spent.