Watch Out, Baby!

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I both work and we have our 2-year old daughter in a lovely home daycare. We really like the provider—she makes organic food for all the kids she takes care of, and does a lot of fun activities with them. But we recently found out that she also has the kids in front of the TV or playing video games for several hours every day. It’s so hard to find good-quality, affordable childcare these days, plus our baby really loves her caregiver. How bad is it for toddlers to watch a little TV?

A: Unfortunately, the whole issue of babies and TV is far from being black and white. The official position of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that kids under two should have as close to zero time in front of screens as possible, and kids older than two should limit screen entertainment to an hour or two per day (not including time on computers that are being used for homework, of course). The point is that children should spend a lot more of their time interacting with other people than with electronics.

In an ideal world—where most of us don’t happen to live—that’s definitely the right approach. But we all have situations that call for a little rule bending, and an hour of TV while you’re taking a shower or making a phone call probably won’t cause any long-term damage. And neither will the parental magic trick most of us perform when trying to tame loud or restless kids: pulling out the tablet or smartphone and putting it gently into those little hands.

The key is moderation. If that occasional hour turns into three or four every day, or if the TV or Angry Birds become electronic babysitters, that’s when we’ve got a problem. A number of studies, for example, have found that children who spend more than three hours per day watching TV or Netflix or playing video games are more likely to have behavior and emotional problems than kids who watch less. A study just published in the journal Pediatrics found that the more screen time kids get, the less they sleep. And other studies have shown that there’s a negative correlation between time spent watching “educational” videos and young children’s vocabularies. In other words, the greater the number of hours watched, the smaller the vocabulary.

But again, it’s not all black or white. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that’s looking at the effects of screen-based technology on very young children—and some of the news is good. Really good. For example, a recent study from PBS KIDS found that children ages 3-7 who played an educational mobile app based on the “Martha Speaks” books improved their vocabulary by as much as 31 percent. And there’s no question at all that touchscreen apps designed for autistic children have made it possible for many of those kids to communicate with others for the first time ever.

So the answer to your question is that having your daughter watch “a little TV” isn’t going to hurt her. But in my view, for a toddler, several hours of TV every day is too much. I’d talk to your daycare provider. Let her know you’re concerned and ask whether she could find something else to keep your daughter busy with besides TV. Hopefully she will—anyone who cooks organic meals for babies clearly has her heart in the right place. If not, you’ll need to make a change.