Children’s Television

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve heard varying expert opinions about children under age two watching television and have become confused as to what is best for my child. I usually have my 15 month old daughter watch TV while I shower and get a few things done around the house, or sometimes we watch baby programming together. What are your thoughts?

A: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children over two should limit television watching to no more than 1-2 hours of quality television per day. Kids under two shouldn’t watch TV at all. And there’s good reason. Research shows that children who watch a lot of television tend to have more traditional (and stereotyped) views of gender and race. They’re also much more likely to be overweight. Because very young children can’t tell the difference between realty and what’s happening on screen, they can find images of violence or adult situations—even in cartoons—confusing or frightening.

Nevertheless, I seriously doubt that there are too many people who go along with the AAP’s recommendations. In fact, a recent study by the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital found that 90 percent of children under the age of two watch television and DVDs on a regular basis. And some surveys indicate that as many as 70 percent of daycares regularly turn on the television while the kids are there.

The reality is that with the busy lives most of us lead, cutting out television entirely is a pretty tall order. Instead, the key, as in most other areas of life, is moderation. Ideally, you should never use your television as a babysitter or park your kids in front of it for hours on end. But an occasional DVD or kids’ show while you’re making dinner or making an important phone call isn’t going to scar your child for life. Keep it to a minimum, though.

If you absolutely have to watch television or a DVDs, make sure that the content is appropriate for your child’s age and development. There are some educational programs designed specifically for children your daughter’s age that can help her get the most out of what she’s watching. A toddler can be thoroughly entertained and learn about the world around her through an OnDemand show like eebee’s adventures or programs like Sesame Street and Noggin. If you’re looking for other suggestions, you might want to check out the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media (www.kidsfirst.org/)

For children older than two, even the AAP acknowledges that television has some redeeming values. “Children who watch educational TV do better on reading and math test than children who do not watch those programs,” they say. The trick is to turn television watching into a learning experience. The best way to do that is to watch together and spend time talking about what you’re seeing. What are the characters doing and why? How are they treating each other? Be sure to prescreen shows for images of violence, sex, smoking, alcohol, and poor nutrition. And finally, insist that your child gets plenty of exercise and spends time interacting with friends and family.