Some experimenta data of my own.
Oh, Television. Ever since you entered our homes almost 100 years ago, you have brought delight and discord to our lives. I imagine the first TV set, with its blurry gray images, sitting in the parlor of a family home being watched by a mesmerized young tot in short pants. His parents probably marveled at this new technology, knowing that it would change things forever, but unaware of what those changes would look like. I imagine this was a pretty special moment.
About 15 minutes in, I bet that mom noticed her kid had become a catatonic noodle. And I bet if she were a woman with her wits about her, for a second, her mind flashed, “I wonder if this kind of thing is good for kids?”
Ever since that day, concerned parents everywhere have wondered about the moth-flame relationship between kids and television.
It is impossible to escape the dilemma. Even if you get rid of your TV, you will be at other people’s homes, in public and there they are: little liquid crystals dancing to the tune of “hello my baby!” And even if you can forestall the day their eyes meet, eventually your kids are going to watch TV at their friends’ or family’s homes. And then, will they be that kid who can’t stop watching whenever they get a chance? Will they hate you for making them miss all the fun? Will their friends in college marvel at how many classic TV-show references they don’t get?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended basically no TV for children under 2 years old, back in 1999. They restated this past October, with a new set of guidelines, suggesting that parents limit TV to as little as possible, recognizing that tv screens are so much more prevalent and the issue so much more complex. With laptops, iPads, phones, screens are everywhere and we as adults get so much more information in video format. Parents needed more clarification on the earlier simplistic “no TV” recommendation.
The new report (“Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years” Pediatrics 2011) highlights that children under two derive absolutely no educational benefit from watching TV. They simply do not process even educational concepts in this format. Even language acquisition is accomplished by face-to-face interaction. Their take-away message is that every minute children spend in front of a TV takes away a minute from constructive play where they are forming connections and learning stuff.
I’m not sure that whining and crying counts as constructive play, but I get where they are going with this. Yes, it’s better for our kids not to stare mindlessly as a puppet dances around in HD, it would be far better for them to be constructing small architectural experiments with Froebel blocks or banging on their xylophone. But how about when they’re not? Like if they’re instead standing in front of you going “waaaaaah” because you are trying to do something important and not paying attention to their every whim or in our case, not letting them watch Sesame Street videos on YouTube? Or what if you are in the car and they have thrown every toy provided on the floor and are screaming, crying, and generally making you want to give up and never go anywhere again?
My toddler is fixated, FIXATED, on my laptop when it’s open. She knows what it can do, she knows that there is a world of whimsical and musical furry creatures ready to entertain her at the click of a few buttons and all I have to do is click them for her and WHY WON’T I DO IT?!! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MOTHER, WHY WON’T YOU LET THEM COME ENTERTAIN ME?!!!!!” Today, she even took my hand and put it on the keys and whimpered.
It’s a battle. I pretty much lose 75% of the time. Even my best distractions are becoming less and less compelling to her. She knows about TV, she has even figured out how to turn on the TV so we have to hide the remote. She knows what iPhones can do. She thinks the laptops exist to amuse her. She has only met an iPad a few times, but she is enthralled. Video technology is wrapped up in her life as much as eating and sleeping. It’s inextricable. Barring a sudden move to our very own Walden Pond, it will always be so. So what is a mother to do?
This issue of course doesn’t stop here at toddlers and “to watch or not to watch.” As kids get older, and TV becomes a familiar habit, how do we decide how much is too much, when and how often?
Watching “fast-paced” cartoons or even educational shows for 9 minutes has shown to decrease the kid’s competency at tasks requiring memory, problem solving, and patience. In this October Pediatrics study of 4 year olds, the effect is described as “temporary” but it’s nonetheless unnerving. It’s being called the “Sponge Bob Effect,” since that was the show used in the study for the “fast-paced” example. Also tested, PBS’s “Caillou,” which did not result in as extreme a shift from the control group (those kids drew with crayons for 9 minutes). Sponge Bob changes “scenes” every 11 seconds. Caillou changes them every 34 seconds. The authors suggest that not only the pacing may play a role in hampering executive function but also the fantastical content of the show, though this was not directly tested.
This 2007 study (Landhuis et al. Pediatrics), followed 1037 children, born between April 1972-March 1973, to determine the relationship between hours of TV watched during childhood and adolescence and attention problems in adolescence. The study subjects ages 5-11 watched an average of 2.05 hours of TV, and 13-15 year olds watched 3.13 hours a day. There was a strong correlation between the amount of TV in childhood and in adolescence as well as attention problems in both. Their linear regression models show that childhood TV-viewing could predict adolescent attention deficiencies.
The picture is coming in 3D-HD now… there should be less TV, all around. Very little TV. Whatever your kids are watching, it should probably be significantly less. Their time in front of the screen is like a long mental yawn. Sure it’s nice to tune out and drop in for awhile, but at least for very young kids, it steals precious learning time from them, makes them overstimulated, and becomes a bad habit.
The new world of video, internet, and games makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish between “TV” and “video,” and none of these studies have distinguished between these formats. Is a video game “TV?” Is a cell phone app “TV?” There is one recent study to suggest that there is a shift towards younger kids playing games on iPads and phones, creating an “app gap” between those children and low-income kids who don’t have access to these gadgets. A study by the Non-Profit, Common Sense Media, found that almost half the families with incomes over $75,000 had downloaded apps for their young kids and babies, whereas only one in eight families earning less than $30,000 downloaded kids’ apps. The full study (found here) contains much more information, also highlighting media use in kids from birth, which is something not previously studied. They found all kinds of things, for instance, that young kids are already learning to multitask with their media, have exposure earlier and longer than previously thought, and that a whopping 42% of kids under 8 have a bedroom TV (one in 3 under 2).
One of the better comprehensive reviews on media targeted to children by Kaiser Foundation, specifically videos and DVD’s, estimated that it was a $4.8 billion industry in 2004. Futhermore, the market for “developmental” videos/DVD’s for infants and toddlers was about $100 million at that time. Both markets have only grown. The educational claims of many of these products is pretty direct. But are there any educational benefits for kids over 2? The answer is complicated, in part because it’s hard to find any kids that HAVE NOT watched any videos or played any educational video games by these ages. The available studies mostly rely on distinguishing between groups of kids who watch certain amounts of these types of media relative to one another and then statistically controlling for other environmental and social factors. After that, one study (Wright et al, “Words from “Sesame Street” Developmental Psychology), found a significant positive impact of Sesame Street viewing on learning. However, no benefit was observed with kids who watched cartoons without an educational message. The researchers confirmed that this educational benefit from more Sesame Street was also seen in improved grades in High School. But there was really no control group, so it’s hard to know whether or not watching the show actually helped.
There are Many Many more studies, reviews, and surveys if you are willing to delve into this subject. And there is sure to be more coming soon. Sifting through the literature is quite disheartening, I will warn you. The trends all point to what I think we all organically know: TV/video/electronic media has become epidemic. For all kids, for longer times, at younger and younger ages, and it’s not typically promoting their well-being. I grew up with a certain amount of TV, but it was very little compared to many of my peers and the generation of kids growing up today. My mother was very anti-TV, annoyingly so. I remember even as a teenager having to go to heroic lengths to watch shows I liked. My dear mom liked to unplug the tv from the back, and then tilt the huge set forward and wedge the cable under the vent in the floor under the back of the TV. Like this would stop me. I would just plug it in when she was out and quickly disconnect when I saw her car pulling in. But we also had BIG picture windows in the front of our house, so I then had to hit the floor and basically crawl out of the living room so she didn’t see me walking from there to another room. It was an elaborate ritual. I also think she started feeling the screen to see if it was warm at one point. And that’s when I started keeping a bottle of windex and paper towels hidden in the living room to wipe it down and thus cool it off. Like I said, heroic measures. I don’t want to be that mom and I don’t want to have this kid.
I think it’s good for older kids to have time to take a mental “yawn” and zone out in front of the TV. We as adults aren’t going to give up our electronic media, so it’s futile to expect our kids not to learn to appreciate it in the ways we do. I think what many of the new studies are trying to do is figure out where to draw the line, since the AAP recommendations leave a lot of questions about real-world usage. Almost no TV, you say? Pediatricians of the Academy, have you spent 15 consecutive months at home with a baby/toddler? You obviously don’t care about maternal mental health. But I get it, we’re all supposed to be martyrs for the cause.
Where does this leave us? Oh yeah, the tantrums. My daughter loves her YouTube clips and I don’t think there’s any going back at this point. I am attempting to detox her from all the extra video she has been watching lately because she was sick and then do whatever I can to prolong the times she isn’t thinking about watching something. I am going to use video more wisely and with great discretion. Hopefully, I can endure the whining when I finally refuse to click on a new clip. And soon, she will know how to click on them herself, figure out how to open a laptop, go to a website, and I’ll have to come up with a new plan. Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy my occasional and precious minutes of Sesame Street-fueled peace and freaking quiet and hope that my sanity is good for my daughter too.