Tuesday, August 11, 2009

TV bad for baby, growing body of science shows

From 24-hour “Baby’s First TV” to Baby Einstein DVDs, it’s hard to fault parents for getting the idea that sitting their infant in front of a screen may prod development.

The “baby-brain” business – educational toys and DVDs that promise to make your baby smarter – is the largest growing toy sector in Canada.

But growing research suggests screen time doesn’t promote cognitive development and may hinder language in children up to the age of two, says a pediatrician in the developmental pediatrics training program at Bloorview.

“We now have hard data to show that children under the age of two should not be watching TV,” says Dr. Michal Begin, a pediatrician from Jerusalem who is studying at Bloorview.

Begin and Dr. Joelene Huber presented a review of the literature on the impact of TV and DVDs on babies up to the age of two at a recent Hospital for Sick Children Grand Rounds in Toronto.

They found the average kid these days starts watching TV at five months – compared to four years in 1971 – and it’s not unusual for baby to have his or her own TV.

When asked why they give babies screen time, a survey of 1,000 U.S. parents found that “about 20 per cent say it’s good for the baby’s brain, another 20 per cent see it as a babysitter, and 20 per cent say it’s because the baby enjoys it,” Begin says.

Products for children as young as six months claim to teach preschool skills like the alphabet, shapes, colours, numbers and counting. “The implication is that if you don’t do it, your kid won’t be as smart as the other kids on the block,” Begin says.

In fact, according to two large American studies published in the journal Pediatrics in March of this year and August of last year, watching TV before age two has no cognitive benefit, doesn’t promote preschool skills and can actually harm language development.

“Infants who watch TV before the age of two have a smaller vocabulary than kids who don’t, when both are tested at age three,” Begin says. “It certainly doesn’t make kids smarter and isn’t good for the brain.”

Young babies aren’t able to grasp the meaning of what they see on TV, Begin says, because they don’t understand symbols. “If they see a ball jumping on the screen, their ability to understand it’s a ball, and that they were just holding a ball, is very poor. When they watch TV, they see moving images with no meaning.”

Begin says that studies have found that when the TV is on, parents and babies talk less, and when parents do talk, they tend to use one word rather than sentences. “The babies are listening, but they’re not using language,” Begin says. “Infants don’t learn language from TV as well as from human interaction.”

A screen also can't provide the multi-sensory input babies and toddlers need to grasp basic concepts like bigger and smaller, Begin says.

Rich interaction with parents – talking, singing, playing, listening to music or reading together – and everyday, hands-on activities, like playing with pots and pans, is still best for early child development, Begin says.

“And it doesn’t cost anything!”


I do agree that kids watch too much TV these days. When I was growing up, we only had 3 stations, now there are at least 8 geared just toward children, plus the 100+ others.

My son is 21 months old. He does watch Sesame Street in the mornings, but that is about it. He sometimes watches a short Baby Einstein if he is under my feet too much while I am making dinner. I don't think TV should be used as a babysitter, and I agree that kids should have as much personal interaction as possible. However, I also don't think that parents should beat themselves up over letting their toddler watch TV occasionally. It is very hard to spend every waking minute with a baby/toddler, especially if you are a stay-at-home mom. It is much easier to say that children need total interaction if you have others there to help you out and give you a break, which we do not have. We do try and get out as much as possible to playdates etc. also though.

At the end of the day, I don't believe that minimal television is going to scar a child for life. If they are well-rounded in other areas, they should be just fine:)

Sorry this is so long, just wanted to put in my two cents...thanks!

Hi Tilly -- thank so much for visiting BLOOM.

My son watched Sesame St. at a young age too! I think what the researchers and doctors are trying to get across is that the marketing hype parents hear -- that their kids won't develop as well/be as smart if they don't watch baby DVDs -- is wrong.

And for our readers, Tilly has her own blog about parenting a young child with hypotonia.

Visit http://www.redefiningmommyhood.com/

Thanks, Louise

Hi louise, Thanks for mentioning my blog:)

I agree about the marketing hype. The Baby Einstein creator has made a fortune. The name alone would make you think "oh, if my baby watches this, he/she will be the next Einstein!" :-)