the TV for toddler's sake
July 15, 2008
People do it every day -- pay bills online, fold laundry
or do homework to the soothing sound of a spinning
wheel, the drone of the evening news or the canned
laughter of a rerun.
Just because you've learned to tune out the television
doesn't mean infants and toddlers can, according to a
new study in the journal Childhood Development.
According to the study, that background adult television
might be a harmful distraction.
Researchers observed 50 kids aged 1 to 3 at play in a
room for an hour: half the time was television-free, and
half the time the TV show "Jeopardy" was playing on a
television in the room. Although the children in the
room while the TV was on glanced up only occasionally,
the researchers saw clear signs that the children had
"It's not something that you would really notice from
just watching the child," says Daniel Anderson, a
co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at
the University of Massachusetts. "I really didn't know
if children could just focus on their activity and shut
out the background noise."
During the television-free time, Anderson and his
colleagues observed standard psychological testing signs
that the toddlers were focused and learning.
"The child gets an intent look on their face, they lean
into the toy, their extraneous body movements decrease,"
Anderson says. "When they're in that state, they're much
more likely to be learning."
But when "Jeopardy" came on, Anderson and his colleagues
saw different behavior. The children played for half as
long as they played without background television, and
they were visibly less calm.
"You actually can see sometimes more aimless behavior,
walking around like they're not quite sure what they're
going to do next," Anderson says.
To Expose or Not to Expose?
The gulf is great between what pediatricians recommend
for television watching and what children are exposed to
in the home. According to a 2003 study from the Kaiser
Family Foundation, two-thirds of children under 6 live
in homes where the television is on half the time, and
one-third of children live in homes where the television
is left on "always" or "most of the time."
But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero
hours in front of the television for infants and
toddlers under age 3. The average child under age 6
watches two hours a day. Even pediatricians aren't sure
what this gap will mean for childhood development.
"The birthright for toddlers in 2008 is seemingly to be
distracted," says Dr. Donald Schifrin, AAP spokesman on
the impact of media on children. "By giving them the
opportunity to be distracted we are conducting a rather
uncontrolled experiment on our nation's children -- will
our children grow up being distracted and distractable
in their lifespan?"
Studying the Screens at Home
If on one end of the experiment are the millions of
children parked in front of the television, the other
end may be the few kids like 3-year-old Cassidy Kanner
of Berkeley, Calif. Her parents watch zero television
and neither do any of her preschool classmates, whose
parents have all made an agreement with the preschool.
"She's never seen a television show in her life," says
Cassidy's father, Allen Kanner, who works as a parent
and a child psychologist. "It's not a problem: When
she's left by herself, she takes out her blocks and
starts to create a little fantasy world for herself."
"She has a very active imagination, which I think has a
lot to do with not watching television," he says.
According to Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the George Adkins
professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington
and Seattle Children's Research Institute, Cassidy is
doing a whole lot more than entertaining herself when
she plays with blocks.
"Manipulating play helps language development," says
Christakis. "When a child is playing with a truck, they
are in fact, saying, 'Truck' internally."
In a term psychologists call "scaffolding," Cassidy
might be silently talking to her toys in ways that help
her understand language, Christakis says. Anderson says
similarly focused, manipulating play helps toddlers
develop skills to plan ahead intelligently, for example,
to use a flat surface to help build or to put bigger
blocks on the bottom.
"Those sorts of connections are happening beneath the
surface, even though parents can't see them," says
Christakis, who also wrote a book on the subject of
household television called "The Elephant in the Living
Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids."
At the moment, studies seem to show television at a
young age interferes with learning.
"There have been a lot of studies that explored this,
and early television is associated with delayed
language, delayed cognitive developments, shorter
attention span," Christakis says. "What we haven't found
yet is the mechanism."
A Happy Medium?
Kanner says he chose a no-television household before
Cassidy was born not as an experiment but as life for
himself and his children. But for parents who don't want
to abandon the television, experts say there's some
control measures to take beyond counting hours.
"Try not to commingle play and television," says
Schifrin. "Play is skill building -- physical, mental,
emotional, behavioral skills. There is very little skill
in watching television; we're all very good at that."
And finally, "Don't put a television in the bedroom,"
Schifrin says. "We're trying to create an amnesty
program for bedroom televisions -- we'd like to go into
every house and rescue these televisions from the kid's
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