When Should Children Begin Watching Television?

by Gloria DeGaetano

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) "discourages television viewing for children younger than two years of age," Zero to Three, a respected organization, decided to partner with Sesame Street and create DVDs for babies and toddlers. This decision stirred a tsunami of protest within the community of experts and professionals who support parents, including the AAP, and spurred a nation-wide effort to stop the project by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

Because confusion often accompanies controversy, I think this article will shed some light on the issues for moms and dads, so they can gather the pertinent information and make the best possible decision for their youngster.

As an educator, speaker, and writer on media-related issues since 1987, I know that a large body of research over the last two decades demonstrates that 2-D entertainment is completely unnecessary for humans averaging 14 pounds or under. Screen technology is a great tool as we all know, but there's growing evidence that it isn't the best tool for babies and toddlers. Yet, at the same time, the video/DVD industry for babies is a billion dollar a year industry, marketing incessantly to parents about the "many benefits" of these videos. It's normal for parents to feel that they are not giving their little ones the best start possible if they don't use the videos.

In making the decision to use TV and DVDs with children younger than two years, I urge parents to seriously consider the following points:

1. In order to develop the capacity for healthy emotional bonds, babies and young children need to look at and relate to their parents and caring people as much as possible.

Most youngsters won't even be able to sustain attention long enough to look at the screen without prompting from mom and dad. Babies want to interact with the loving people around them—flesh and blood people, not people on 2-D screens. In fact, this is the primary developmental task at this age. Young children's brains are wired to pick up subtle clues that will affect them either positively or negatively in their future ability to become emotionally healthy and autonomous individuals. For instance, in an interesting study secure mothers interacted in more appropriate ways with their babies than insecure mothers. Secure mothers and their children engaged in a more fluid, synchronous process of give-and-take than insecure mothers and their children. In addition, secure mothers expressed more warmth and affection, and their style of relating was less intrusive and more encouraging of child autonomy than insecure mothers. The babies picked up on the different styles of relating and accommodated to them.

In their wonderful book, A General Theory of Love, the authors, (all medical doctors) point out, "…when we engage in relatedness, (we) fall under the gravitational influence of another's emotional world, at the same time that we are bending his emotional world with ours." (p. 142) In other words, relating between humans is a highly reciprocal act with each person adjusting to and learning from the other. This type of adjustment and learning does not take place with characters on a screen. The young child responds to screen characters, but she relates to live human beings. This is a critical distinction. Love actually alters the young brain. That is the main point in A General Theory of Love. I advise parents to read this book before deciding to use videos with little ones.

2. Toddlers need to, well, toddle—move and examine every inch of the 3-D spaces around them, not sit for two hours every day, as many currently do, in front of a screen.

Let's face it, it's easy to overuse TV and video when parents are tired or stressed. However, if we overuse the screen as a source of solace for ourselves to keep our children occupied when we need to do something, chances are the habit will backfire on us—making our children more hyperactive, impulsive, and not capable of playing by themselves. To help our youngsters learn to self-direct and self-regulate their own behaviors, they need to be in 3-D experiences that allow them to explore and experiment with concrete objects as their senses absorb the feel, texture, color, and smell of those objects. This is how young children learn best and how their brains want to learn at this stage. Play also slows the child down to understand how to problem-solve, make decisions, organize ideas and learn how to manipulate and control the environment.

3. There is a growing body of research that demonstrates serious negative outcomes of early exposure to TV and video.

Frederick J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., and Dimitri A Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Washington assessed data on 1,797 children who were approximately six years of age at the time of one of the four most recent survey interviews in 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000. Scores in mathematics, reading recognition and reading comprehension from a commonly used and well-standardized test were compared with the level of television watching before age three and from ages three to five. Their analysis showed a consistent pattern of negative associations between television viewing before age three years and adverse cognitive outcomes at ages six and seven years. In another important study of 2,500 children that was released in 2004, researchers found early television exposure was linked to attentional difficulties at age seven. The authors also found sleep disturbances in youngsters who watched TV. Parents should read these studies and decide if they want to roll the dice with their little ones.

4. Imagination develops best as the child plays in the 3-D world.

In my book, Parenting Well in a Media Age, I refer to the capacity to imagine as one of The Vital Five—a critical developmental need that generative play nurtures. Imitating screen images, does little to build the child's imagination. Einstein remarked, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Why?

Because image-making involves many parts of the brain, it is paramount to all our thinking processes. Our internal imagery weaves a tapestry of thought and feeling that enable us to integrate knowledge with experiences, Our mental images also provide an impetus to action, influencing both behaviors and decisions. When children develop their image-making capacity, they develop their symbolic thinking, and with that, many other mental skills. Dr. Mary Burke, pediatrician, has written in a paper she presented to the American Psychological Association (May, 2004) "The development of symbolic thought is crucial in the maturation of both the cognitive and affective systems. The capacity to imagine, rather than act, allows the child to solve problems mentally and to regulate himself under every-day stressors, when he does not have access to his parents."

The very best way to develop an imagination is to give babies, toddlers, and young children every opportunity possible to think up images in their own heads without relying on the visual images of screens to evoke that process. As a matter of fact, visual images on screens disrupt that process. I highly recommend that parents play audio tapes, read books, and tell stories. When youngsters have to process auditorily without the visual image, they are developing their image-making capacities.

5. Even amid all this controversy, the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn't budged. They continue to discourage screen time from birth through age two.

That should give make us pause to think about who is pushing videos and DVDs onto young children and why they are pushing them. The experts sure aren't, but the commercial interests are.

© 2006 Gloria De Gaetano, all rights reserved.
Gloria DeGaetano is the founder and CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute. Her latest book is Parenting Well in a Media Age, Personhood Press, 2004.

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