Should you let your toddler watch TV?

ResearchBlogging.orgi-0812f9a0a8ceb3efb31b309a13181fb5-zimmerman.jpgWhen Jimmy was around 18 months old, Greta and I were both in graduate school. I attended classes at night and Greta taught and worked in the lab during the day. In the late afternoon I'd drive into the city with Jimmy in the car seat, and we'd swap -- she'd drive back home and I'd go to class, taking the train back home when I was done.

At this point, Greta was extremely pregnant with Nora. She was exhausted at the end of her workday, but Jimmy had usually taken a nap in the car, so he was raring to go. All Greta wanted to do was lie down and take a rest, and fortunately, there was one way to get Jimmy to sit still long enough for her do that: Barney the Dinosaur. She turned on the TV and reclined on the couch while Jim sat entranced by Barney's soothing antics with his friend Baby Bop. After the thirty minute break, Greta was refreshed enough to make dinner, and after dinner and a bath, Jimmy was ready for bed. So you could say that Barney helped both Greta and me make it through graduate school by "taking care" of Jimmy for a half-hour a day.

But was Barney being helpful to Jimmy? By using Barney as a surrogate parent, were we teaching Jim that he should expect to be perfectly entertained at all times, instead of exploring the world on his own or spending time with his parents? And what about other TV shows and movies, like those featuring violence or non-educational content? Could it be possible that early exposure to TV ruins kids by shortening their attention spans and making it harder to focus on tasks like reading and schoolwork?

In 1997, a long-term NSF-sponsored study of 4,800 families added new questions about children's daily activities, including TV watching. The same families were re-surveyed in 2002, offering an excellent opportunity to take a look at the long-term effects of TV watching. The 1997 survey asked parents to keep a diary of activities for one weekday and one weekend day. Since the respondents reported on the TV programs their kids watched, researchers could assess not only the impact of TV-watching, but also the impact of specific TV programs. Is Barney better than Power Rangers?

Frederick Zimmerman and Dimitri Christakis classified programs into three categories: Educational (Barney, Sesame Street), Nonviolent entertainment (Rugrats, Babe), and Violent entertainment (Power Rangers, America's Funniest Home Videos). The researchers analyzed the responses of 542 parents of 0- to 36-month-olds, as well as 391 parents 4- to 5-year-olds. The 1997 responses gave them the TV-viewing data, and the 2002 responses allowed them to identify children who later developed attention problems. This graph shows the results:


The results are expressed in terms of an odds ratio -- in this case, the chance of developing attention problems compared to not developing those problems five years later. An odds ratio of 1 signifies that there is no relationship between the two items compared. For toddlers age 0 to 36 months, those who watched either nonviolent or violent TV were significantly more likely to develop attentional problems later. There was no significant relationship between watching educational TV and attentional problems.

For 4-5 year-olds, none of the results were significant. Although it appears from this graph that watching educational TV might lead to attentional problems in this group, the results weren't actually significant because there was a very large range of responses (for the statistics-inclined, the 95 percent confidence interval for this group ranged from 0.8 to 3.5).

So these results suggest that it's not a good idea to have your toddler watch non-educational TV, including such kid-oriented programs as Looney Tunes cartoons, The Lion King, and even Bambi. For older kids, these shows appear to pose less of a problem. I should point out, however that an odds ratio of 2 is fairly low, so we're not talking about an especially dramatic result. Only about ten percent of all the kids in the study actually developed attentional problems, and these results suggest just a slightly higher risk of attentional problems for toddlers watching entertainment TV shows.

F. J. Zimmerman, D. A. Christakis (2007). Associations Between Content Types of Early Media Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems PEDIATRICS, 120 (5), 986-992 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2006-3322


More like this

When Jim and Nora were toddlers, they were huge fans of everything Disney. Here they're wearing their Disney pajamas as they play next to their Seven Dwarves figurines, underneath their TV, which was frequently used to watch Disney videos. We even took them to Disney World, where they had an…
When I was in elementary school, we had two recesses every day: 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the afternoon. Plus, we had a 30-minute lunch period, and as soon as we finished eating we were free to go outside and play until the bell rang. So I was a little surprised when our kids…
One of the key claims of the "autism biomedical" movement is that something about autism derives from or is exacerbated by the gut; i.e., that there is some sort of link between GI problems, particularly inflammatory diseases of the GI tract, and autism. Although I may not be as versed in the…
Too many too soon: that's Jenny McCarthy's rallying cry.  The disingenuous activists of the antivaccine movement use this motto as a foot in the door, claiming that they are not truly "anti-vaccine", just pro-"safe vaccines".  This is despite the fact that vaccines have proved themselves to be one…

tv is one area where i'm confident there is a big chance of a third variable effect. for example, kids who are hard to handle might be put in front of the tv more often. without random assignment, i'm not sure this says very much. additionally, what about infant-oriented programming? Barney isn't targeted at infants and is more educationally appropriate for preschoolers.

My son is 3 and we've let him watch TV and DVD's his whole life, but mostly educational programs. (What, "Dr. Who" isn't educational??) This was initially because I took him to work with me when he was a baby and I needed something constant to keep him happy while I worked, so it was endless "Baby Einstein" and "Thomas the Tank Engine" DVDs.

He's used them to teach himself how to read by the age of 2, and he can count and say the alphabet in at least 6 different languages. "Between the Lions" and "Sesame Street" helped a lot. He can use the remote control to the DVD player, and uses the flash cards and games in the "extras" section of DVD's to quiz himself daily because he thinks it's fun. He watches other things like "Speed Racer" but I haven't noticed any attentional problems. For all the bad things people say about kids watching TV, I can't help but think that it really does depend heavily on what they watch, as the study above suggests.

TV certainly has an influence on his diet: we refuse to show him regular advertisements, such as fast food ads, which he never eats anyway. This is good because he always wants to eat food he sees in the shows he watches, but since it's been educational shows, he always asks for fresh fruits and veggies. I really can't complain!

Dave, I had some of the same questions you did before I embarked on an obsessive journey to figure some of this stuff out.

The result was my book Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5 (Basic Books, 2007). Sorry for the shameless plug, but I thought I'd mention it here because it not only describes lots of interesting psych experiments using media but also includes interviews with Dr. Christakis, who talked to me in some depth about his previous research on attention problems and TV. This study you note here is a great one to focus on, namely because it makes distinctions in content, which looks to be be more critical than many researchers originally thought, even at 2 years old. Thanks for highlighting.

Am I missing some reason why this couldn't just be a correlation? Even if parents do have control over what their kids watch, perhaps a bad parenting style is correlated with letting them watch more TV.

By Ben_Wraith (not verified) on 27 Oct 2008 #permalink

I believe that the reason educational television promotes what some identify as "attention problems" is because Television promotes new ideas in an exciting manner, giving the icing but not really going in depth in most subjects. After all, your 5 year old may pick up quite a bit of Spanish watching Dora the Explorer but if you ask them to conjugate a verb they'll act like you just spoke a foreign language.

When these students who get used to learning from the 'icing on the cake' method are placed into a classroom where the real nuts and bolts of a subject are presented, they simply aren't interested. Its not flashy, its certainly not as entertaining. Chemistry is cool when you're putting two chemicals together to create an interesting reaction, its not so cool when you are working the math problems.

Its a hard problem to solve, today's teachers certainly can't compete with the entertainment value of something like Mythbusters. At the same time a show such as that may serve to get someone interested in subjects they never thought about before, and prompt them to seek out the in depth knowledge.

Should you ban your child from watching a show like a Mythbusters or Dora for the fear that it will ruin them for paying attention in class? I guess the truth is, you should know your own child as every one is different, but it may give them a new thirst for knowledge (Hey, Science is COOL!) but as with anything be sure to exercise moderation. Never let your TV raise your kids, but I don't think its a bad thing to get your TV to assist in entertaining them in a responsible fashion.

Aaron, perhaps the future goals of educators should be to find a way to make the learning more exciting and fun. When my son turned three I enrolled him into a preschool program called the Fastrac program. They had a 60 inch touch screen tv that they used to animate all of their lessons, and the kids were able to take turns going up and interacting with the screen. My 3/4 year old learned about earth sciences, astronomy, communication, etc. He would come home talking about magnetism, gravity, volcanos and the solar system, and he loved every minute of it. At three years old he was describing himself as a scientist. I have since enrolled him in a Pre-K program, and although he enjoys the time with his new friends, he keeps asking when he gets to go back to his old school, because he got to learn about airplanes, and spaceships, instead of just numbers and letters. (which he already knew all of them before starting pre-k)

Did they measure a correlation with duration? Or is it assumed that this is some kind of Boolean state? Perhaps there's a difference between a half-hour of Barney and 4 hours of whatever.

Third variables, well; did they correlate this with socioeconomic status? Seems to me there's likely to be a fairly big class (and race) angle both to TV habits and attention problems.

Good points, everyone!

To answer some of your questions, the researchers did control for quite a bit:

* Age
* Race/ethnicity
* Gender
* Region
* "Urbanicity" (proximity to an urban area)
* Number of children
* Parents' education
* Mother's score on a depression inventory
* Presence of father

They did indeed take into account the amount of time watching each type of programming, and did not code it as a yes/no.

I've noticed the graphs often take frequent and lengthy explanations. Can't they be modified so that the information is more visual?

For instance, immediately after the graph, you describe what the numbers mean. Is there a way to show this without all the exposition?

By Greg Padilla (not verified) on 28 Oct 2008 #permalink

Perhaps the attention levels stemmed from the fact that they were more advanced than the rest of the class...

As always, it's difficult to figure out what is the cause and what is the effect, but from what I have seen and read I don't think that really small kids benefit very much from watching TV. As you say, it can sometimes be a very helpful tool for parents, but I agree that it's good to know what it is the kids are watching and see to it that it's age-appropriate.

I felt a bit... tired when I learned that the daycare coordinator recommended the private home daycare providers around here to let children watch video to develop their language. (We don't speak English at home, but we live in an English speaking region. It took some time for my daughter to pick up the language.) I cannot find the reference now (others will know this much better than I do), but I'm fairly sure that up to three years or something like that, the only thing that really works for language development is interaction with people. Perhaps the little ones don't see the sounds on TV as communication, even if it's entertaining.

Thank you for writing about this. Considering the fact
that toddlers are spending much more than 30 minutes
a day watching TV, this is a very important subject.

"The study, by pediatric researchers at the University
of Washington, also found that by age 2, 90 percent of
children are watching television for an average of more
than 90 minutes a day."…

Personally, I would like to see more EEG and other type
of brain scanning studies done on children while they
watch TV, to see TV's physical effect on the minds of
young children.

According to this Scientific American article:

"As one might expect, people who were watching TV when
we beeped them reported feeling relaxed and passive. The
EEG studies similarly show less mental stimulation, as
measured by alpha brain-wave production, during viewing
than during reading."…

As I'm sure Dave Munger is aware, the reasoning for this
reduction in mental stimulation is the "orienting response".

So the question is, what is the effect on very young
minds of spending 90 per day (every day) in a state
of "involuntary attention" as opposed to "voluntary

That's a question, I would very much like to see answered !

Not to be nit-picky, but it's "raring to go."

By David Group (not verified) on 31 Oct 2008 #permalink