Babies and TV: New Media Use Guidelines from the AAP
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a new policy statement on media use by children under 2 this week. The new guidelines are based on more than 50 studies of TV* time in babies and toddlers.
How much TV do infants and toddlers in the U.S. watch these days? The AAP cited several surveys that found that TV is a big part of the daily lives of our youngest children:
- Among kids under 2 years old, 90% of them watch 1-2 hours of TV per day.
- A staggering 19% of babies under 1-year-old have televisions in their bedrooms. This figure rises to 29% for 2 to 3-year-olds.
The AAP “discourages media use by children younger than 2 years.” They recognize that babies and toddlers will be exposed to some TV in today’s world, but they recommend that families try to limit TV time as much as possible – including both TV designed for kids and “background TV.” The policy statement describes the research behind this recommendation and gives some alternatives to TV time.
The policy statement addressed three questions around infants and toddlers and TV:
1. Are infant-targeted video programs educational? (Most programs intended for this age group are promoted as being educational.)
The answer: NO. Research has not found any benefits to television watching in children under 2. In one study, a Teletubbies program was played both forward and backward to babies, and it was not until they were at least 18 months that they could differentiate the two versions (Pempek et al. 2007). Though this program is billed as being educational and specifically designed for kids ages 1 to 3, it is probably no more than flashing lights and jumbled language to most kids under 2. This might entertain your baby, but it does not educate him.
2. Is there any harm in my infant or toddler watching TV?
Maybe. Several studies have found that babies who spend a lot of time in front of the TV have short-term language delays. We don’t know for sure that TV-watching caused those delays, but the association is there. Long-term effects haven’t yet been studied.
3. What if I want to watch my own shows while my baby is playing in the same room? He doesn’t seem to really watch them, so I don’t think they bother him.
In one survey, almost 40% of American families with infants and young children reported having a TV on constantly in their home. The AAP cites two problems with this:
- If the adults in the room are watching TV, then they probably aren’t interacting with their children as much. Infant vocabulary development is directly related to the amount of time parents spend talking with their babies, so when parents are watching TV, baby is missing out on learning new words.
- Even if baby doesn’t appear to be watching an adult TV show, it is still distracting to him. In one study, 12, 24, and 36-month old children were observed playing while an adult television show played in the background. The children glanced up at the TV about once per minute, and only for a few seconds at a time. However, just this brief interruption in their play significantly reduced the total time they spent playing as well as their focused attention during play (Schmidt et al. 2008). For a baby, interrupting their play is interrupting their learning.
I suspect that cutting out this “background noise” TV-time will be the hardest sell in many families who are simply used to having the TV on all the time. I know we’ll still be watching football on Sundays in our house. Still, knowing that the TV could be getting in the way of a baby’s learning might at least help families remember to turn off the TV when nobody is watching and to try to watch adult shows while the baby is sleeping.
The bottom line is that TV isn’t good for babies, whether they are watching a children’s show or there is an adult show playing in the background.
Here are some things that are good for babies:
- Being read to.
- Being talked to.
- Listening to music.
- Playing outside (exercise!)
- Playing games with other children or an adult.
- Playing independently.
The more time a child spends in front of the TV, the less time he has for these healthy activities.
Many parents use TV to occupy their babies or toddlers so that they can get something done – take a shower or cook a meal, for example. Parents simply don’t have the time to sit on the floor playing with their babies all day – they have too many other responsibilities. The answer: Let your child play independently. Certainly make time for playing and reading together, but it is also good for babies to have time for free play everyday. The AAP endorses it!
If they have a safe environment and a few simple toys, babies are remarkably good at entertaining themselves. Play is how children learn. They test hypotheses, solve problems, and practice creativity. Allowing your baby time to play independently isn’t lazy – it is actually good for the baby and definitely better than watching TV. Free play is valuable to a baby’s development, plus it is a good skill at any age to be able to occupy yourself without having constant input. Meanwhile, you can work on getting dinner on the table!
Here are a couple more resources on baby play:
Psychologist Alison Gopnik’s TED talk on how babies learn. In under 20 minutes, Gopnik gives an entertaining, easy-to-understand window into how babies think and learn like scientists, through their play. She says that because everything is new in a baby’s world, babies are constantly taking in tons of new, vivid information. Gopnik says: “So, what’s it like to be a baby? It’s like being in love, in Paris, for the first time, after you’ve had 3 double espressos…” Now, imagine having Teletubbies turned on high volume in the Parisian cafe. It ruins it, doesn’t it?
For more on cultivating free play with your baby and other alternatives to TV time, check out Janet Lansbury’s post, A Creative Alternative to Baby TV Time. She provides some helpful tips, and the video she included is super cute, too.
How much TV does your baby watch? Do you think the AAP recommendation is practical for your family? Has your pediatrician ever asked you about TV use in your house?
*For this policy statement, the AAP focused only on “static” video programming – such as that on TV or a video. An increasing number of infants and toddlers have additional screen time with iPads, smartphones, and computers. Time spent playing interactive games on these devices probably affects kids differently than TV, but no studies have been published investigating this latest trend in baby entertainment.
Council on Communications and Media. The American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement: Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years. Pediatrics; published online October 17, 2011.
Ginsburg K; American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Communications, Committee
on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics. 2007;119(1):182–191
Pempek TA, Kirkorian HL, Lund AF, Stevens M, Richards JE, Anderson DR. Infant responses to sequential and linguistic distortions of Teletubbies. Poster presented at: Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development; March 27-April 1, 2007; Boston, MA.
Schmidt ME, Pempek TA, Kirkorian HL, Lund AF, Anderson DR. The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child Dev. 2008;79(4):1137–1151.