Should babies watch TV?

This question seems to trouble many parents, and can cause a lot of guilt too.

“Will the TV numb my baby’s brain?”

“Are they destined for a sedentary life?”

“AM I CONDEMNING THEM TO LIFE AS A MINDLESS AUTOMATON?!”

This is why an interview last week with psychologist Annette Karmiloff-Smith on the BBC’s The Life Scientific caught my ear (thanks to a pointer from mum-in-law, Jenny). It’s a fascinating insight into how babies learn to learn, and how their brains develop to understand the world around them. You can listen here: The Life Scientific.

But on TV watching, Prof Karmiloff-Smith, an expert in developmental disorders, argues that if the subject matter of the programme is carefully chosen and scientifically based, then the TV can be better for a child’s learning than even a book.

This was largely in response to advice reissued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that babies under two shouldn’t watch any TV or DVDs. There are three main concerns: poorer language skills, a negative effect on sleep, and less time spent taking part in other types of unstructured play that are critical for the proper development of mental capabilities.

This is based on a growing body of scientific research. TV/DVD watching is common: in the US at least, by two years old over 90% of children regularly watch TV, spending an average of 1-1.5 hrs a day in front of the box. Very young babies (under 1.5 years old) cannot, however, really understand TV programmes, and are instead mainly attracted by obvious changes like applause or visual surprises.

Children learn new words or actions better when an adult is teaching it to them live, rather than via a television screen, and the worry is that parents talk to their kids less when the TV is on. And a growing number of studies suggest that children who spend longer watching TV/DVDs have delayed language development, at least in the short-term, and may also develop a worse attention span.

A child’s play may also be hindered by the distraction of a TV that’s on in the background, so the AAP advise to turn it off altogether. Many parents also use TV/DVDs as a sleep aid, but there is evidence that bedtime viewing may lead to more disturbed and shorter sleep.

Karmiloff-Smith, on the other hand, argues that we live in a media saturated world and it’s unrealistic to expect parents to shut down all media use. This view has support from some of the evidence cited in AAP report itself. Despite the original recommendation in 1999 that parents should be discouraged from letting their babies watch TV/DVDs, over 90% of them in the US currently do so by the time their child is two years old. What’s more, the average age that TV is introduced is 9 months, so the advice is clearly not striking a loud enough chord.

From my experience, I can certainly appreciate this. The AAP report says that many parents use the TV so that they can have a shower or cook dinner. Absolutely! Even these seemingly mundane activities can feel like an exercise in military-like efficiency when you’re looking after a child. A 10-minute respite when they’re quiet and content gazing at a TV or prodding an iPad can be just too tempting.

It’s also interesting to consider that throughout history many new technologies have been treated with caution. Dr Vaughan Bell, a psychologist based at King’s College London, has highlighted how the printing press, popularisation of the radio, and now the Internet have been damned for ruining kids’ brains.

Karmiloff-Smith goes on to say that, rather than banning TV for babies, TV programmes just need to be made better and based on science developments. For instance, the visual system is attracted by movement, but most kids’ TV programmes have their focus on the centre of screen. Instead, objects and features that come in from the sides, move across screen and encourage the child to interact promotes the active participation that’s good for mental development. For very young babies, moving image media may even have advantages over books, which are static and whose main attraction is the rustling of the pages.

The caveat in this is that Karmiloff-Smith reveals herself to be a scientific consultant to a DVD company that is designing such programmes. This could cause suspicion of a financial conflict of interest. But her honesty and gusto make me suspect that she became a consultant so that she could promote these ideas, rather than the other way around.

She finished the interview by emphasising that parents still need to interact with their children and the TV shouldn’t be used as a babysitter. But we should think more carefully about which types of media can stimulate the visual and auditory systems, so as to help train the attention and memory systems early.

I’ve written before about the various kinds of programmes and the various contexts in which kids can watch TV, which may have different effects on child development. And some of the evidence cited in the AAP report highlights these complexities. The effects on children’s attention, for instance, seem to depend on the programme content and style, with problems seen not when the content is deemed educational but only when it’s geared towards entertainment. And when a parent watches a programme with an infant and talks them through it, the child tends to become more attentive and responsive. The AAP report also points to evidence that watching Sesame Street can have a negative effect on expressive language in children under two. But the same study showed that watching other programmes, such as the North American-based shows Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues, Arthur, Clifford, or Dragon Tales, was associated with greater vocabularies and higher expressive language scores. So it appears that not all ‘screen time’ is equal.

The AAP report seems to fall into the trap of treating all TV and DVD viewing as the same:

For the purposes of this policy statement, the term “media” refers to television programs, prerecorded videos, Web-based programming, and DVDs viewed on either traditional or new screen technologies.

Another major limitation of the AAP report is that all of the cited studies are, by necessity, observational. These investigations are good at highlighting whether two factors are associated with each other, but they cannot tell you whether one causes the other. As the report itself asks, are children with poor language skills simply placed in front of the TV more? Are children with shorter attention spans more attracted to screens? Are parents who are less attentive on the whole, more prone to resort to screen time? If so, then turning the TV off would not necessarily lead to more parent-child interactions.

And some results are just contradictory. One study in the US showed that when the mother’s educational status and household income were taken out of the equation, the association between TV viewing and poor language development disappeared. This appears to have been glossed over by the AAP.

So how do I answer my original question?

The AAP are right to caution against a lot of TV for under twos (over four hours a day, say), as this is when the damaging effects are really apparent. But Karmiloff-Smith is also right to say it’s unrealistic to expect no TV at all, and that the right programme in the right environment is fine and potentially beneficial.

And I’ll leave you with this quote in Time from Dr Dimitri Christakis, a paediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital:

Ask yourself why you’re having your baby watch TV. If you absolutely need a break to take a shower or make dinner, then the risks are quite low. But if you are doing it because you think it’s actually good for your child’s brain, then you need to rethink that, because there is no evidence of benefit and certainly a risk of harm at high viewing levels.

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3 thoughts on “Should babies watch TV?

  1. Jenny Priestman

    Thanks Matt for your usual comprehensive and concise exploration on the subject. As a granny as well as a parenting professional, it intuitively and observationally makes sense that TV is only problematic when used as a substitute for child-centred interaction and play.
    As you point out, causation and correlation are complex issues. My experience (as a professional!) is that when the TV is used for long periods as a babysitter, there are frequently other concerns about the parenting style for a range of reasons. Thus the water becomes very muddy when trying to identify distinct causes for developmental delay.
    Jenny

    Reply
  2. The Skeptical Dad Post author

    Thanks Jenny, always good to receive feedback (especially positive!). Your point about parenting style is, of course, very relevant – if we were to ban TV for under two’s, there’s no guarantee that babies will spend the time freed up doing anything developmentally positive. I think in general health messages that attempt to stop a behaviour are more likely to fail than positive ones (though, as ever, I’d love to see some evidence on this!).

    Reply

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