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TV, Tots, and Tired Parents: The Backlash to the AAP’s TV Policy

Earlier this week, I wrote a blog post about the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new guidelines for TV use in kids under 2 years old.  I intended that piece to be a brief summary of the new guidelines and the research that the AAP used to support them.  I didn’t think about these guidelines as being controversial.

However, as the media and the blogosphere got wind of the new guidelines, I found article after article questioning them – calling the AAP out on making a recommendation without solid science and blaming them for creating the next round of unwelcome parenting guilt.

Polly Palumbo at Momma Data posted a piece in which she points out that the studies on TV and babies are really still inconclusive.  Polly knows her stuff, and of course she’s right about this.  The research points to problems with babies watching TV, but the evidence is mostly correlative rather than pinpointing TV as the cause.

In his piece on (Go Ahead, a Little TV Won’t Hurt Him), Farhad Manjoo says that TV is key to distracting his one-year-old enough to get him to eat his dinner.  Wow, that’s a great way to set up your kid to have healthy eating habits!  Before you know it, he’ll be able to shovel it in himself without any thought for what or how he is eating, as long as the TV is on.  But other than that example, Manjoo makes some excellent points.  Namely, there is very little research on the effects of a moderate amount of TV (less than an hour per day) on babies.

Then there was a great piece on Momsicle (American Academy of Pediatrics & Screen Time: Moms, You’re Ruining Your Kids’ Lives Again) that gives voice to how many parents feel about this recommendation.  This mom of two kids under two needs just a little TV to survive the day.  She says the AAP’s blanket recommendation doesn’t help her and might actually cause more guilt and stress in her life.  And the last thing a mother needs is more stress – we can all agree on that.

Reading all this made we wonder:  Should I have been a little harder on the AAP, finding all the holes in their science, especially since I bill myself as a scientist-at-heart?  Am I out-of-touch with the reality faced by most parents?  Do I need to work at being a bit edgier?

Actually, I think the AAP did the right thing.

First of all, let’s look at what the AAP actually said in the “Recommendations for Parents” section of their policy statement:

“The AAP discourages media use by children younger than 2 years.  The AAP realizes that media exposure is a reality for many families in today’s society.”

They “discourage” it, not ban it.  They go on to say that parents should make sure their child is watching something age-appropriate and ideally, parents should watch with their child.  Don’t put a TV in your child’s bedroom.  Realize that adult shows may have a negative effect on children.  And above all, unstructured playtime is a better way for a baby to spend his time.  This sounds totally reasonable to me.  Why is everyone up in arms about this advice?

I know, most parents won’t read the AAP policy statement or their press release.  Instead, they’ll read the headlines, which seem to have simplified the message to:  “Pediatrician Police Ban TV for Your Kids.  If Your Kids Watch TV, You Are a Bad Parent!”

A little TV is probably just fine, but don’t expect the AAP to say that, because then everyone will ask, “How much, then?”  And we don’t know.  That research hasn’t been done.  So the AAP “discourages” TV for babies and wants you to know the potential dangers of it.  A little junk food every now and then is probably OK, too, but the AAP isn’t going to release a statement saying that they approve of an Oreo a day for babies.  The policy statement clearly discusses the research that raises concerns about TV, but it also honestly describes the pitfalls of the studies.  The AAP looked closely at all of these studies and decided that they were concerned enough to take a stand on TV.

You, the parent, now that you are informed, can do what you will.  You can include a little TV as part of your child’s day.  Just think of it as a little bit of junk food.  In moderation, it probably won’t hurt, but don’t expect it to help either.  If you want to do something that is definitely good for your child – read, play, or go outside.  These nutritious activities are the ones that will build his brain and let him explore HIS world.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to have TV in my one-year-old’s life.  If I need to fix dinner or fold some laundry, she is happy to play by herself, as long as she can occasionally check in with me.  Seriously, all that kid needs is a cardboard box and a couple empty toilet paper rolls.  I swear her toy bin in the kitchen could be mistaken for a recycling bin.  Maybe she won’t be able to occupy herself as easily when she’s a little older and has explored everything interesting about a toilet paper roll.  Until then, I’m keeping the TV off.

The real shame is that the kids who really need this policy are not the ones whose parents are debating its merits on the blogosphere.  Far too many babies in this country watch a lot of TV each day.  A 2005 national survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that on any given day, 61% of 6- to 23-month-olds watch TV or a video for an average of one hour and nineteen minutes.  That’s an average – many kids watch much much more.  19% have a TV in their bedroom, and many parents say they use it to help their child fall asleep at night.  33% live in homes where the TV is on all or most of the time.  These babies grow up with constant media input and not enough interaction with real people and the real world.  They don’t know how to play, much less enjoy reading a book for entertainment.  These are the kids who need this policy, and it might just help if their pediatricians explain to parents the potential dangers of too much TV.  That’s why the AAP released this policy, and I think they did the right thing.

Do you think the AAP’s policy is reasonable?  Does your baby like TV? 

  1. I have two girls, 4.5 and 2.

    I’m definitely in the limit it, but don’t ban it camp. With my first, we didn’t really let her have any screen time until she was over a year old. That just wasn’t possible with my second, since banning it for her would have meant banning it for her older sister, too, who, by this time was old enough to get some actual benefit from some of the educational videos (and understand why we were taking away something she liked. We didn’t want her blaming that on her little sister). So my second daughter probably started seeing some TV at about 9 months old, although we did manage to limit that mostly to Signing Time videos. (And hey, the signs have been a huge help as we wait for her speech to become more intelligible.)

    Frankly, I could not get dinner made after work without the TV. It is hard enough to make something decent in the 20-30 minutes I have between getting home and dinner time- the TV helps keep the kids out of my way. (Yes, we cook together sometimes, too, but that is more for weekends when we have more time. I suspect we’ll do it more as they get older and dinner time can be a little later, and their help will actually be helpful!)

    But I also agree that play and reading are better. So we limit the time, and restrict the shows mainly to educational ones, with the occasional showing of a movie like Cinderella (the only princess show that doesn’t scare my princess-obsessed 4.5 year old).

    And I don’t worry about this AT ALL. So much so, that I didn’t even bother to go read the details on the AAP recommendation. I could guess what it would say, and I knew it wouldn’t change anything we’re doing.

    So I guess I agree with you, with the possible exception that I wouldn’t be so hard on the dad who uses the TV to get his son fed. We have never done that- mostly, meal times are TV-free times here. But if I’ve learned anything from motherhood, it is that every kid presents unique challenges, and so I try not to judge what someone else has to do to deal with the challenges his or her kid presents. Also, we totally used TV to get our first daughter’s teeth brushed when she was about 2! Sometimes, you just get desperate.


    October 24, 2011
    • Hi Cloud – Thanks for reading! I realize that everything gets harder with #2. I’m living in a dream world right now with an 11-month-old that just started signing so can communicate a little but doesn’t challenge me much yet:) I don’t have any desire to turn on the TV for her yet, but we’ll see if that changes in the next year. I’ll keep the blog up-to-date on that – maybe you will all be laughing at me in a few months. But I’m not worried about your kids either – like I said, a little is probably just fine, based on the research I’ve read, especially when your kids lives are full of other enriching activities. Also, I think the AAP recommends no more than 2 hours of screen time (including computers and games) for kids over two, which seems completely reasonable to me, and it sounds like your kids are within that range.


      October 24, 2011
    • Oh, and point taken about judging other people’s parenting techniques. But yikes – I can’t help it! He’s really just setting himself up for more eating problems down the road.


      October 24, 2011
  2. I can certainly understand why someone with more than one child may *need* a little TV time to help them get dinner on the table, get some quick cleaning done, finish putting those final touches of make-up on. But I don’t frankly understand this backlash.

    After reading your piece earlier this week, I sent it to my husband, stating in the email “we really should stop running the TV in the background on the weekends, mornings and evenings.” We’ve let Jakey sit on our lap during big football games, and I’m not going to freak out if he gets a little more than a minute of TV time in at one time. But I don’t see the point in depending on TV to distract a child under one-year-old (I can’t and won’t speak past that time frame, since my little one is just barely pushing one).

    More than anything, I agree with your assessment that those who need this recommendation the most are not the ones who are debating its merits. And it saddens me that the parents of these children will end up reading a watered-down version of it, if they hear about it at all.


    October 24, 2011
    • Thanks for the comment, Mandy. Football is pretty much the only TV BabyC might be exposed to in our house, too. I think it is a pretty uninteresting thing for a baby to “watch” – distant tape of little guys running around on a field. Anything close up is slowed way down. My husband, on the other hand, gets really animated and could definitely distract her from her play:) But I also thought that the research on background TV was really interesting. We don’t know if it really matters, but I can imagine it would really impact a kid exposed to background TV all day long. I was actually raised without a TV, and I know I have a very hard time focusing on anything else when the TV is on. I’ve never been able to study or read in the same room. There’s probably some amount of conditioning to tune it out than can occur in kids that get used to background TV – I also know people who say they study and sleep better with background noise. Interesting stuff, for sure!


      October 24, 2011
  3. Poor old AAP. They do sometimes seem to pull their pronouncements out of thin air (their car seat recommendation, for instance, is not in line with the science). But…I think they try their hardest to find the compromise between what the science supports and what’s practical for parents, and as a result, no one likes them. The scientists think they’re too soft, the parents oftentimes think they’re too hard-line. The reality is that most of their policies are couched in such non-committal, CYA (cover your…) language that they don’t end up communicating well at all.


    October 24, 2011
    • The AAP has a really tough job, but their first responsibility is to doing the right thing for kids. As someone commented on my Facebook page – it is not their job to make sure parents feel good about their parenting choices or even to alleviate parents’ stress. I thought the policy was very thoughtfully written but is too easily misrepresented in the media.


      October 25, 2011
  4. I think the backlash probably comes because many parents are already feeling guilty about not being “good enough” and the TV pronouncement probably puts them in a category they don’t like. I’m one of them. There’s so much pressure nowadays to parent your child like a hothouse plant – crafts and play dates and activities…it’s not like when I was four or five and my mom would throw open the back door and tell us to go outside and play so she could clean the house. (By the way, her house was spotless at all times). As a parent of two extremely active and very messy boys, I depend on some TV time to grade papers for my job, do enough cleaning to keep my house from being a sty, and do child-unfriendly cooking activities like boiling stuff and slicing veggies with enormous knives. If the TV were not on at such times, I’d be constantly badgered for an endless stream of snacks and drinks, begged for Angry Birds, and alarmed by the sound of entire bookshelves being delightedly emptied on the floor above, water running when it shouldn’t, and children whacking each other with unidentified objects.

    I definitely wish that I were better at keeping my house TV-free (and my kids do NOT have TVs in their rooms) but it’s all part of wanting to be a better mom and feeling generally guilty about my shortcomings in time and patience.


    October 24, 2011
    • Thanks so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment. I know TV is a part of everyday life for many families, and it probably is OK in moderation and with careful selection of shows. And the AAP is specifically talking about kids under two here, not the kids that young aren’t capable of all the shenanigans you mention. One thing – in defense of the AAP – was that they actually devote a considerable portion of their policy statement to offering alternatives to TV for babies. They really push the idea of more independent play, which I think is brilliant. They aren’t necessarily asking you to do more crafts or more organized activities with your kids – just to promote more free play. I understand that free play can turn into chaos easily, but it is working well for my child at the moment, and I hope that it remains a viable option for us as she grows. We’ll see:)


      October 25, 2011
  5. I have to agree, having grown up without tv in the house while I was a young child, that it’s not necessary. Taking care of my nephew Kannon for the pas t4 years, and now raising my own son, we keep the TV off nearly all of the time. Now that Kannon is 4 he is allowed to watch sometimes, a movie if it’s raining or too cold to play outside, but only once a day and that’s really all he ever wants. Miller is of course too little to care about TV, but we still keep it off so that he knows it’s not a constant in our house. There’s plenty of time to watch TV when kids are older, still limited though, no need for it when they’re little….not in our house anyway 🙂


    October 24, 2011
    • Awesome Esmee! I love to hear from parents who know it can be done! I think it is interesting that everyone I’ve heard from who says they don’t expose their kids to any TV acts like it really isn’t that big of a deal (and I feel the same way) and those that have it as a daily part of their lives think they can’t live without it. I think there is a lot of conditioning happening and kids reach a point where they expect it. If it isn’t an option, they find other ways to occupy their time. Plus, Miller has “dog TV,” right?


      October 25, 2011
  6. This is an issue I feel passionately about. I am an early childhood educator, and a mama of three under age 4. I have an in-home daycare and preschool and travel to teach other early childhood educators around my state. I understand the studies are inconclusive (I’m just finishing the chapter in David Elkind’s “The Power of Play” on screen time and it is wonderful!), and I am all for keeping parenting as stress-free as possible, but the AAP is a group of scientists making recommendations about what is *best* for children. Is watching television under age 2 *best* for kids? Absolutely not. Is it damaging in moderation? Most likely not.

    If I went to my dentist, and my dentist said, “Don’t floss. It’s no big deal, really. I know you don’t have time to floss, and the pressure to floss is adding stress to your life, so don’t worry about it, really.” then I would leave and find a new dentist! The dentist tells me, “If you don’t floss, you run the risk of periodontal disease and tooth loss as you age.” Period. She does help me think through ways of making flossing a realistic part of my hygienic routine and she doesn’t berate me when she sees I’ve been doing a less than perfect job at it, but she also doesn’t let me off the hook because it doesn’t feel good.

    In the field of early childhood education, there is always talk of “best practice”. What is the best practice in every situation. Is it possible to do the best practice every time? No. Does that mean we lower the standards of practice? NO!

    There is no study that proves television watching to have a positive effect on a child’s development when they watch it under age 2, unless you are talking about secondary positive effects because of a parent’s stress level reduction because they got a break from the child to cook dinner, take a shower, etc. The biggest predictors of lifelong successes are strongly developed social and emotional skills, and those domains do not develop in front of the television.

    None of my three children watch television. We have no television service at our house. There will be plenty of time for it in the future. I am not anti-media, but there is so little positive to be gained (besides a break from the kids!) from children’s media! (There is a wealth of work about the development of bias through early exposure to media.) I also recognize that I am parenting with a partner who fully supports our family and children, so when I am at a breaking point, I can pass the kids off to him. I know a TV-free home is not for everyone. That said, to question the AAP’s recommendation for children under age 2 to not watch television on the basis that parents don’t need one more thing to feel guilty about is absurd.

    Thank you for your post!


    January 27, 2012
    • Thanks for your comment! I agree that I think the AAP made the right call with this policy. I think it benefits parents and children to have this information, to know the risks of TV exposure and the recommendations of professionals in the field. I also think that the AAP has a responsibility to describe the limitations of the current research and to encourage more work in this field, which they did. Families can certainly make their own decisions, but the risks of too much TV exposure should be part of that decision process.


      January 30, 2012
  7. Thanks for a thoughtful post. This is something that causes me some angst, because my toddler does watch a fair bit of TV. However, we also read 10+ books together every day, and go out to playgrounds, parks and museums every morning and afternoon, and talk to each other a lot. So while I understand that the AAP has to take the cautious, best practice stance, I also think individual circumstances have to be taken into account (which the AAP is, obviously, unable to do).

    One factor that I think makes a big difference and doesn’t seem to be accounted for much is the temperament of the child or children. I know many ‘easy’ children who are indeed happy to play on their own, or just nearby someone, for a long time; but I know many others, including my own, who can play on their own if set up with good toys for 20 minutes maximum – and 30 seconds maximum if they’re getting tired and fussy. And I think this has far more to do with luck of the draw than parenting style; I know several families which include both types of child, and the parents are stunned at how different parenting needs to be for their second or third child.

    And personally, I would rather my toddler watched some letters walking around a screen than cried at my feet while I juggle placating him and preparing his food or getting ready to leave the house, or screamed while I was changing him. But, it does bother me that between changes and distraction time, the TV ends up being on for several hours over the day (although we never have adult TV on in his presence).

    I blogged about this a while back (, but the above pretty much summarizes my position. I would be really interested to hear from parents in the leave-it-off-completely camp on how they manage extreme fussiness if they are simply not available to play with their child or help them play independently for half an hour – because they are attending to their other children’s needs or doing something else which must be done at that time.



    April 5, 2012
  8. I realize that this post is over a year old, but I still wanted to share a few ideas about this. I am a teacher-researcher and want to offer what I have learned through experience with and reading about infants and young children.

    1. Very young children are not capable of tuning out external stimuli in order to focus on one task. Alison Gopnik describes the differences in the ways that adults and infants think as lantern thinking in infants (imagine the light from a lantern that spreads out all around) and spotlight thinking in adults (one point is brilliantly illuminated but the rest of the stage is dark). This means that the very young have a hard time ignoring background TV. For more about this, check out Gopnik’s book The Philosophical Baby. Also, here is the URL for her TED talk:

    2. Media aimed at children co-opt their play and imagination. When the characters and plot are pre-determined, children tend to ignore other possibilities. This sometimes manifests itself as children telling each other that they are playing wrong or that there are only X number of Disney princesses, so you can’t play, etc. I have seen this many times as an early childhood educator. I recommend Susan Linn’s excellent book The Case for Make Believe: Saving play in a commercialized world. (I wrote a review of this book in the Journal of Early Childhood Research June 2010 vol. 8 no. 2 217-219.) This book explains the nuances of the effects of television and commercial media on the play capacities of children.

    3. Infants and young children do not need to be entertained unless they are trained to need entertainment. Having a completely safe space sectioned off for children eliminates the need to distract them from their play, which is crucial to brain development and skill development. Magda Gerber describes this as a “no-free zone.” See Magda Gerber’s Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect, chapter 4 “Time Apart: A Space for your Baby” available through the website.

    I realize that the realities of organizing life necessarily interfere with ideals, but I think it is important to truly understand what brain processes are happening in young children and what is at stake when we are balancing what is easy with what is important.


    November 5, 2012

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