I have three kids, aged six and three, and a baby of nine months. Their development is important to me, so please guide me on how much TV they should or should not be watching.
TV is a fundamental part of many children’s lives – many kids are glued to the TV for hours every day. Add the time they spend staring at DVDs, computers, and video games, and the screen time really mounts up. Does this do any damage, or is it a harmless way for kids to pass the time?
According to research watching TV can be harmful, especially for children under three. That’s because the brains of very young children are like lumps of clay, growing and changing in response to what they experience.
TV watching: What research studies say
Early television exposure in children ages one to three is associated with attention problems at age seven, according to a study from Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle published in Pediatrics. The study revealed that each hour of television watched per day at ages one to three increases the risk of attention problems, such as ADHD, by almost 10 percent at age seven. The study controlled for other attributes of the home environment, including cognitive stimulation and emotional support.
The findings also suggested that preventive action can be taken to minimize the risk of attention problems in children. Limiting young children’s exposure to television during the formative years of brain development may reduce a child’s subsequent risk of developing ADHD.
This study, led by Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, a pediatric researcher at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, added inattention to the list of harmful consequences of excessive television viewing, which include obesity and violent behavior.
At other times, media consumption comes with opportunity costs, foremost among them the parents’ silence. While television is on, there’s less talking, and talk time is crucial in language development. Three studies have tracked educational television use and language development, and found a link between increased TV time and developmental delays.
A study by Hutton and colleagues (2019) documents structural differences in the brains of preschool-age children related to screen-based media use. Forty-seven healthy children — 27 girls and 20 boys between 3 and 5 years old — completed standard cognitive tests followed by diffusion tensor MRI, which provides estimates of white matter integrity in the brain. The children’s parents completed a 15-item measure of screen-based media use called ScreenQ. ScreenQ scores were then statistically associated with cognitive test scores and the MRI measures, controlling for age, gender, and household income.
Among the key findings:
- Higher ScreenQ scores were significantly associated with lower expressive language, rapid naming ability, and emergent literacy skills.
Rapid naming refers to the speed with which the names of symbols (letters, numbers, colors, or pictured objects) can be retrieved from long-term memory (De Jong & van der Leij, 2003). This process is often termed rapid automatized naming (RAN), and people with dyslexia usually score poorer on RAN assessments than typical readers (Elliott & Grigorenko, 2014).
- A higher ScreenQ score was also associated with lower brain white matter integrity, which affects brain organization and myelination — a protective sheath around nerves that allows their impulses to move quickly. In particular, the harm was identified in tracts involving language executive function and other literacy skills.
TV watching: Guidelines and tips
The following are guidelines to protect your children from the harmful effects of TV, and perhaps use the TV for their benefit instead.
1. Limit the amount of time your children spend watching
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following:
- Infants 18 months and younger: No screen time.
- Toddlers between 18 and 24 months: A few minutes of TV time with a parent or caregiver.
- Children 2 to 5 years: One hour per day
- Children 6 years and older: For healthy kids, an average day includes school, homework time, at least one hour of physical activity, social contact, and sleep – which is anywhere from eight to twelve hours for kids. Whatever’s left over can be screen time.
2. Watch programs, not television
Rather than allowing your children to sit down and watch whatever is on, carefully select what they will watch. Opt for educational programs and turn off the set when that show is over.
According to Aletha Huston, Ph.D., professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin, educational television can positively impact young children.
In a study coauthored by Huston, researchers recruited more than 200 Kansas City children from low- to moderate-income families. During the three-year study, which followed children from ages two to four years, researchers tested the children and visited their homes every year. The tests included reading, vocabulary, math, and school readiness.
“Children who watched educational programming – particularly at age two and three – performed better on tests of school-related skills than children who did not watch educational television,” said Huston. “Watching a lot of general audience programming was related to poor skills.”
3. Keep the TV off during family mealtimes
Children and teens who have regular family dinners enjoy various benefits, including better physical and mental health, improved school performance, and fewer problem behaviors.
Take the time to sit down and have an evening meal with your family; the effort will be well worth the rewards. However, eating in front of the TV starts a bad habit and reinforces kids’ dependence on television.
4. Don’t forget to read to your children
Begin reading to your children when they are born. Encourage older kids to read independently, but don’t stop reading aloud to them.
Lead by example. Show your kids that you enjoy reading, and let them see you reading rather than watching TV to relax.
Some parents may believe they can’t offer their children the educational experiences TV provides. They are wrong. Children learn the best from real people, especially people who are important to them. When parents talk with their children, they not only promote language development but also teach their children that they are valued and important. Reading books and turning off the TV can facilitate these positive interactions.
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More about Susan
Susan is an educational specialist in learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree. Early in her professional career, Susan was instrumental in training over 3,000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development among children who struggle to read and write. With over 30 years of research to her name, Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic, and now there are 40 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of students whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.