Mommy and Grandma were in my grandparents’ kitchen putting the finishing touches on our thanksgiving dinner. My siblings and cousins were in the corner playing a rowdy game of cards with our uncle. Had there been no TV in the house, I would have wanted to help stir the gravy or whoop Uncle Steve in Rat-A-Tat-Cat. But instead I lay curled up on the sofa, watching the game with my adult relatives. To this day I have little interest in or understanding of football. But that didn’t matter to five-year-old me – even when commercials came on and the others got up, I could not tear myself away from the set. I was watching TV, a magical, forbidden toy.
A few months later, I was goofing off with my brothers on the way home from soccer practice, when suddenly, instead of turning into our development, the car sped back up. “Do you guys want to come with me to buy a TV?” Of course none of us believed Daddy; we weren’t allowed to watch TV, except for sometimes at Grandma’s house, and even then Mom didn’t like it. But we were still excited – a surprise was obviously on its way, and surprises often included ice-cream!
Much to our utter amazement, fifteen minutes later we were actually in a store and surrounded by TVs of every size, shape and color – including a pink one covered in “Hello, Kitty” stickers. Thrilled and finally convinced that we were actually going to take one home with us, I tried to persuade Dad to choose that one, but he was busy talking to a worker. We ended up with a boring black one with a screen not much bigger than my current laptop, but still, it was a TV! We stopped at the library on the way home to pick up a movie; Dad chose a rendition of Macbeth because that’s what we were learning about in school, and we headed home, loud in our excitement.
When Mommy got home from grocery shopping with baby Noah, she found all five of us squeezed onto the couch, eyes glued to the screen. There was a moment of heavy silence as she glared at Daddy before she interrupted Lady Macbeth’s monologue to insist that he take it back. “It’s for educational purposes only!!” Daddy tried. “See, we’re watching Macbeth!”
Then all of us kids were sent to bed so that Mommy and Daddy could talk, and we lay in bed, praying our little hearts out that he would convince her to keep the television.
The psychological, neurological, and sociological literature largely agrees that television-watching has a negative impact on the young child’s cognitive development. The American Academy of Pediatricians has issued a warning that children under the age of two should not be permitted to watch any TV at all. However, there is also a great deal of less conspicuous evidence that TV can actually benefit the child’s cognitive development when used correctly. Parents should by all means be made aware of all the negative effects of TV on their child, but also know that they do not have to go so far as to convert to a life completely without television. By using it in the right ways, they can turn the TV experience into a benefit for their child.
My parents, like many others, decided against owning a television because of the plethora of evidence pointing to harm (Winn). Television use has been associated with obesity, diabetes, a decline in overall fitness levels and sleep disorders, for example (Linn&Poussaint). However, a perhaps more compelling case against television is the extensive research suggesting that exposure to television harms the infant and toddler’s cognitive health in three main ways. It serves as a distraction from healthy play, thus preventing active engagement with the world. It becomes a barrier to communication with their caretakers, slowing language development. Finally, it is linked to behavioral problems, short attention spans, and ADHD, all of which make learning more difficult. For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly encourages parents not to permit their infants and toddlers to watch television, instead encouraging real-life interactions. Let us now look a little more closely at the evidence for each of the harms listed above.
One of the most obvious problems with toddlers watching TV is that they are wasting time that would be better spent in active play. Optimal mental development depends on the young child’s active engagement of the world for himself at his own pace, but television causes him to revert to passivity (Winn, 21). Even watching age-appropriate educational programs robs children of the opportunity to play creatively (Salkind). Moreover, such passive attitudes can become habitual and extend beyond the hours actually spent in front of the television screen, further slowing the cognitive development that should be occurring through normal play (Winn, 84-85).
Young children also depend on active play in learning to communicate. Language and eye contact are critically important in early development, and when the television is on, the child vocalizes less and interacts with his parents less (Christakis). While it is true that some educational shows can teach young children new words, learning occurs much faster if the words are presented by a live person (Troseth). The director of Harlem Center, a work focused on preschoolers, noted that many children came to him unable to speak in coherent sentences, but without physical or mental defects. “It is usually diagnosed as a speech defect,” he said, “but most often I have found it to be simply the result of hearing bad English, listening to nothing but television, and being spoken to hardly at all” (Winn, 76). A New York Times review of recent research studies concludes that “the number of words an infant hears each day is the single most important predictor of later intelligence, school success, and social competence. There is one catch –the words have to come from an attentive engaged human being…Television [does] not work” (Blakeslee).
Another reason to avoid child exposure to television is that it is associated with poor behavior, shortened attention spans, and ADHD, all of which impede learning. Television tends to have fast-paced audio and visual cuts which can be over stimulating to the young child’s developing brain, making him jumpy and hard to teach. Kindergarten teachers have noted this directly in their classes, and scholarly work backs up their observations (Christakis; Winn; Zuckerman). An observational study of 1,300 children found a positive correlation between television viewing before the age of three and attention problems at the age of seven. Moreover, for every additional three hours of watching television per day, children were 28% more likely to have attention problems (Zuckerman).
Because of these harms to the young child’s cognitive development, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a warning. It strongly recommends that instead of allowing children under the age of two to watch television, they should be encouraged to actively play or interact with a caregiver. Beyond infancy and toddlerhood into early childhood, it further recommends that TV watching be limited, always be accompanied by an adult, and have stress placed on interacting and talking about the show with an adult (Linn&Poussaint; Jolin&Weller; Anderson&Pempek).
This warning is warranted and parents should take it very seriously. However, they should also be aware that there is also reliable evidence suggesting that when used in the right way, TV can actually benefit the child’s cognitive development. No study claims that extended television-watching benefits the child, but if TV time is limited to consistently watching the same few educational shows while interacting with a caretaker about it, television may become an effective tool for sharpening the very young child’s mind (Register; Zilmann et al.).
However, any such benefit in television applies only applies to certain shows. Age-appropriate educational programs, like Sesame Street, effectively encourage cognitive development, but other shows can be very harmful (Kunkel; Huston, Donnerstein&Fairchild; Anderson). Watching certain child-audience shows is associated with improved scores on academic skills tests, while watching general-audience programs is associated with poor scores (Wright et al.). Programs meant for children can teach basic academic skills like the ABCs, counting, and early reading skills, as well as introducing the child to cultures, animals, and places that he might not normally see (Neuman&Koskinen; Baydar et al.; Kunkel). This benefit is especially true for children who originally had low academic skills (Baydar). Overall, parents of first graders who watched educational shows were more confident in their children’s progress than parents of those whose children watched no television at all (Gunter&McAleer). Further, the benefit of television for young children depends on the shows being watched regularly and repeatedly (Baydar et al.). Crawley et al. found that with repetitious watching of educational shows, children began interacting more with the TV and comprehension improved. Finally, the parent or caretaker should interact with the child about the show as they watch. Co-viewing in silence is not enough – although this is better than letting the child watch TV alone, it is far more conductive to learning for the parent to help the child understand the show and encourage him to talk about it (Dorr, Peter&Catherine).
Thus, although research has primarily concluded that television-viewing is harmful to the young child, it seems that it can actually be beneficial when used in the right ways. Why then does the AAP simply recommend that young children not be permitted to watch any television at all (Linn&Poussaint; Jolin&Weller; Anderson&Pempek)? This overcautious recommendation is problematic because it is largely ignored, likely because advising parents to give up television altogether is simply too much to ask. Rather than leading to fewer children watching TV, there is now a negative trend of toddlers watching more TV than ever; On average, children under the age of two watch 2-4 hours of television per day and 88% of preschoolers watch public television (Christakis; Signman; Linn&Poussaint; Zuckerman). After all, the television is a convenient babysitter, something to keep the kids busy when they are bored or sick, and a way for the caretaker to find a moment of quiet for himself (Zuckerman; Spiegel; Linn&Poussaint). Granted, being told to switch from this overdose of television to none at all is an incredibly intimidating choice for parents to make. However, if they were instead encouraged not to completely ban television, but simply to be much more cautious about the way in which it is used, they may be more likely to develop much more beneficial TV habits for their children’s sake.
Television is not inherently bad for the young child. In fact, there is evidence that when age-appropriate educational programs are watched frequently and with the attention and interaction of a caretaker, TV-watching in small amounts can actually speed cognitive development. However, as Barrie Gunter and Jill L. McAleer wrote in their book Children and Television, “These benefits do not all happen by accident or good luck; however, they can be cultivated and controlled. We must learn how to use television to enjoy its full benefits and we must teach our children to do likewise” (Gunter&McAleer).
To complete my personal narrative: God must have heard my five-year-old prayers that we be allowed to keep our brand-new television—or maybe my parents were just well-versed in the research literature. We used the new TV to watch foreign language videos when we learned French and German, and science and history videos to compliment our homeschool experience. Occasionally, we even sat down as a family to watch “Lost in Space” or “Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang” just for fun. Even when we got older and branched out to some more modern films, my parents always encouraged us to watch with others and remain mentally alert so that we could discuss the film after it finished. To this day, I am grateful—especially after growing older and discovering for myself both the addicting nature of television and the intellectual uselessness of most of the content—that my parents shielded me from television when I was young. But I am equally grateful—for example when German comes so much more naturally to me than languages that I was not exposed to as a child—that they struck the right balance and used TV effectively to enhance my learning experience.
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