Toddlers and Television: Do They Belong in the Same Sentence?

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.


Works Cited

Anderson, Daniel R. “Educational Television is not an Oxymoron.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557, no. 1 (May 1, 1998): 24 -38.  Anderson, Daniel R., and Tiffany A. Pempek. “Television and Very Young Children.” American Behavioral Scientist 48, no. 5 (January 1, 2005): 505 -522. Baydar, Nazli, Çiğdem Kağitçibaşi, Aylin C. Küntay, and Fatoş Gökşen. “Effects of an Educational Television Program on Preschoolers: Variability in Benefits.” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 29, no. 5 (September): 349-360.  Blakeslee, Sandra. “Studies Show Talking With Infants Shapes Basic Ability to Think.” The New York Times, April 17, 1997.  Christakis, Dimitri. “Infant Media Viewing: First, Do No Harm.” Pediatric Annuals 39, no. 9 (September 2010): 578-582.  Council on Communications and Media. “Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years.” Pediatrics 128, no. 5 (November 1, 2011): 1040 -1045.  Crawley, Alisha M., Daniel R. Anderson, Alice Wilder, Marsha Williams, and Angela Santomero. “Effects of Repeated Exposures to a Single Episode of the Television Program Blue’s Clues on the Viewing Behaviors and Comprehension of Preschool Children.” Journal of Educational Psychology 91, no. 4 (1999): 630-637.  Dorr, Aimee, Peter Kovaric, and Catherine Doubleday. “Parent-Child Coviewing of Television.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 33, no. 1 (1989): 35-51.  Edith Spiegel. “Yes, ‘Sesame Street’ Has Its Detractors.” New York Times. New York, NY, August 5, 1979.  Greg Toppo, and USA TODAY. “‘Secondhand TV’ can hurt kids”, n.d.  Gunter, Barrie, and Jill L. McAleer. Children and Television. Psychology Press, 1997.  Huston, Aletha C., Ed Donnerstein, and Halford Fairchild. Big World, Small Screen: the Role of Television in American society. University of Nebraska Press, 1992.  Jolin, Edith M., and Ronald A. Weller. “Television Viewing and Its Impact on Childhood Behaviors.” Current Psychiatry Reports 13 (January 26, 2011): 122-128.  Kunkel, Dale. “Policy Battles over Defining Children’s Educational Television.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 557, no. 1 (May 1, 1998): 39 -53.  Linn, Susan E, and Alvin F Poussaint. “The Trouble with Teletubbies: The Commercialization of PBS.” The American Prospects, no. 44 (June 1999): 18-26.  Neuman, Susan B., and Patricia Koskinen. “Captioned Television as Comprehensible Input: Effects of Incidental Word Learning from Context for Language Minority Students.” Reading Research Quarterly 27, no. 1 (January 1, 1992): 95-106.  Register, Dena. “The Effects of Live Music Groups Versus an Educational Children’s Television Program on the Emergent Literacy of Young Children.” Journal of Music Therapy 41, no. 1 (2004): 2-27.  Salkind, Neil J. Encyclopedia of Human Development, 3 Volume Set. 1st ed. Sage Publications, Inc, 2005.  Sigman, Aric. Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives. Ebury Press, 2007.  Lewin, Tamar. “Children Watching More Than Ever.” New York Times (October 25, 2011): 18.  Troseth, Georgene L. “TV guide: Two-year-old Children Learn to Use Video as a Source of Information.” Developmental Psychology 39, no. 1 (2003): 140-150.  Winn, Marie. The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life. 25th ed. Penguin (Non-Classics), 2002.  Wright, John C, Aletha C Huston, Kimberlee C Murphy, Michelle St. Peters, Marites Piaon, Ronda Scantlin, and Jennifer Kotler. “The Relations of Early Television Viewing to School Readiness and Vocabulary of Children from Low-Income Families: The Early Window Project.” Child Development 72, no. 5 (September 1, 2001): 1347-1366.  Zilmann, Dolf, Brien R. Williams, Jennings Bryant, Kathleen R. Boynton, and Michelle A. Wolf. “Acquisition of Information From Educational Television Programs as a Function of Differently Paced Humorous Inserts.” Journal of Educational Psychology 72, no. 2 (1980): 170-180.  Zuckerman, Diana. “Does Early TV Viewing Cause ADHD?” Youth Today, May 2004, 13 edition, sec. 5.


Is Abortion Empowering? The Suppressing Effects of Abortion on Biblical Feminism

The legalization of abortion is widely cited as a breakthrough for the feminist goal of overcoming male dominance.  It allows women, like men, to find sexual fulfillment without the risk of having a child.  But can women find a true sense of fulfillment in changing themselves to become more like men?  In this piece, I argue that women are instead empowered when they embrace their natural femininity and reject abortion as the easy way out of an unwanted pregnancy.  I approach this idea from a Christian perspective, but also reference practical social perspectives to which my secular readers can relate.  I am not making a case for the relative rights of the human fetus and adult; for this argument it is sufficient to assume that the fetus, as a potential for human life, deserves at least some level of respect.

I will begin this discussion with an introduction to the argument supporting abortion as a means of bringing women to social equality with men.  I will then discuss the woman’s identity struggle and the solution of Biblical Femininity (her identity as decreed by God): the path by which she finds fulfillment, and what it actually means for her to reach equality with man.  Finally, I will explore ways in which prohibiting abortion can empower the woman to reach her full potential.

It has often been argued that legalized abortion has helped to liberate the woman from male dominance.  Now that she has the option of abortion as a fallback should contraception fail, the modern woman can find full sexual fulfillment without worrying about the consequences.  If conception does occur, she simply makes a responsible judgment as to whether she is equipped, willing and able to support a child.  Whether she is a victim of rape or simply unwilling to postpone her career for a few months, the woman has the option of easily escaping her unwanted pregnancy.  Abortion is also useful to the woman who wants children, as a planning tool to ensure that she does not have children at inconvenient times or with serious genetic defects.  For these reasons, many advocate abortion as a way of giving women the freedom and peace of mind that men always had.

However, is becoming like men the key to women’s quest for equality with them?  Men and women are obviously very different, physically, emotionally, and psychologically.  Thus if womankind, in general, tries to emulate mankind’s strength to rival him in the ways that men are strong, she will always fail. She was made to be a woman, with specific strengths unique to women and she will never be able to be a man as fully as he himself can be.  This is not a negative truth; actually it is a liberating one.  Women reach equality with men by embracing their natural differences from men.  For example, in the Old Testament, we read about a woman named Abigail who accomplished with kindness and peace, natural female tendencies, what David and his mighty warriors could not win by their swords (1 Samuel 25).  Only by embracing their femininity as different and not inferior to masculinity do women reach full potential.

Biblical femininity is special in its distinction from masculinity.  In the creation narrative recorded in Genesis 1, we are told that God created man and woman “in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).  Man and woman are so different, yet each represents dimensions of God’s character that the other cannot effectively portray.  For example, while man serves as a physical representation of God’s might, woman exemplifies his compassionate love.  Woman, then, has strengths unique to her, purposely bestowed on her by God.  Through growth in these traits, rather than attempts to become more masculine, she will become truly empowered.  Here, I focus on two such aspects: her nurturing devotion and her desire for commitment in her relationships.  For both cases, however, abortion prevents her from reaching her full potential of Biblical Femininity.

Women have a compassionate instinct to nurture and protect those incapable of protecting themselves (Isaiah 49:15).  When confronted by an unwanted pregnancy, a woman can find fulfillment by making voluntarily sacrifices for this life entirely dependent on her.  By rejecting abortion as the easy way out, she is refuting the demeaning stereotype that she is weak and unable to cope with the unexpected twists in life (Callahan, Sidney. “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: A Case for Prolife Feminism.”).   She realizes that her “pregnancy is not like the growth of cancer or infestation by a biological parasite; it is the way every human being enters the world” (Callahan).  Rather than regarding it as a curse, she embraces the fact that unlike man she can give birth to new life.  Because it is entirely unnatural for a woman to want to cut off this new life within her, by opposing abortion she is also embracing her identity as a woman.  To again quote Callahan, “Pitting women against their own offspring is not only morally offensive, it is psychologically and politically destructive.  Women will never climb to equality and social empowerment over mounds of dead fetuses, numbering now in the millions.”  In these ways, by rejecting abortion and instead embracing the ability to give and nurture life, women find fulfillment in who they were made to be, rather than disappointment as they try and fail to match and rival men.

God also created woman to yearn for commitment in their relationships.  This desire is obvious even in very young girls who love any fairytale about a princess who falls in love with the prince that she is fated to live happily ever after with.  A grown woman has that same desire.  She wants to be emotionally close to someone who will stick by her through everything, not a man who may leave her on a whim.  She wants to be a valued half of a serious relationship, not below man but with him, her strengths complimenting him and his complimenting hers.  This desire was placed in woman from her beginning.  Eve, the first woman, was called man’s “ezer kenegdo,” roughly translated as “helper,” for he was not complete without her (Eldredge, John and Stacy. Captivating. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010, pp. 32-33).  This Hebrew word “ezer kenegdo” appears twenty other times in the Old Testament, always referring to God’s powerful, relieving support when we are most desperate (Deuteronomy 33:29).  This absolutely essential supporting role in a relationship is the one that woman was created to fill, but to be such a “ezer kenegdo” she needs a man committed to her.  Unfortunately, abortion allows men to be less committed to the long-term aspect of their relationships.

By rejecting abortion, women force men away from their oppressive desire for irresponsible, uncommitted sexual relations.  As things are now, the woman bears legal responsibility for the choice of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, and the man, who may well have played no role in the decision, cannot be reasonably forced to help support and raise any children not aborted.  Further, the increased acceptance of abortion has led to the dominant rationalization that “if she refuses to get rid of it, it’s her problem” (Callahan).  This can be very detrimental the woman’s natural desire for a committed relationship.  As long as abortion is not an option, however, the man is pushed by responsibility to help deal with the problem instead of leaving or coercing the woman into terminating her pregnancy.

What is fulfillment?  What does it mean to be empowered?  How does feminism fit in with religion?  In this essay I argue that they are closely connected by the identity which God gave to woman when he created her.  This identity is unique to her, distinct from man’s identity, and in pursuing it, she finds fulfillment.  One way in which she can do so is in resisting abortion, which does not empower women but pushes her into the futile race to equal man by being like him.  Actions like the active resistance of abortion are necessary because only through fulfillment and contentment in their differences can the balance between men and women ceases to be a power struggle and become a beautiful expression of who God is.