Baby boy with remote control watching television
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Is TV Good or Bad for Kids? See What the Experts Say About TV and Children Under the Age of 3

When it comes to small children and TV, parents often have lots of questions. Is TV bad for kids? At what age can babies watch TV? How does TV affect my child? Is it ok for my toddler to be watching TV? If you’re a parent, perhaps you’ve asked these questions yourself. And if you’ve looked at the data, you’ve probably found it deeply disturbing.

The fact is though that, according to an article by AdAge published in 2011 that references data from Common Sense Media, 40% of toddler-aged children (2 to 4 years in age) have access to a mobile media device like a smartphone or tablet. While new technology has given rise to more blue-screen time with younger children, TV still dominates 74% of the media market for children under the age of 8.


The AdAge article digs in deeper too, revealing that children under the age of 2 spend more than twice as much time watching TV or videos as they do being read to. Four out of every 10 kids grow up in homes with the TV on all or most of the time. Plus, children of this generation are more likely to have a TV in their bedroom than previous generations.


As a parent, you likely had some inkling that the numbers regarding babies watching TV would be high, but the statistics are indeed alarming. According to PBS, nearly three quarters of babies and toddlers are exposed to TV before they reach the age of 2. Is your child one of them?


Allowing your toddler to watch TV doesn’t make you a bad parent by any stretch, but you might want to learn more about the facts of how TV affects your child before you power on the remote again.


What do the experts say?

Interestingly enough, there are not very many studies about babies and TV, but thanks to findings conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are more details about how much TV watching is happening among children in this age group.


Here are some quick facts about children of toddler age and TV from the Kaiser Family Foundation:

  • 74% of all infants and toddlers have watched TV before the age of 2
  • 71% ask for their favorite videos
  • 67% ask for particular TV shows


As mentioned, there has been very little research conducted on how TV affects infants and toddlers. Most of the research conducted regarding the good or bad of watching TV has been done with children of preschool age. Infants and toddlers have been largely neglected in these studies, however there is now more interest in conducting research for babies and toddlers because, as PBS points out, more programs are being introduced and directed to children of a very young age, including videos made for infants.

Little girl sitting on the floor and watching TV in living-room
Little girl sitting on the floor and watching TV in living-room


Can 3-month-old babies watch TV?

Reviews of the existing research that has been conducted were published by the National Literacy Trust of London as well as the Kaiser Family Foundation. Some of these studies have shown that age-appropriate shows geared toward preschool-aged children can be productive for learning language.

The data is more spartan for toddlers though. It suggests that children at 18 months of age are responsive to visuals for programs that contain words, but there is conflicting data which shows children under 22 months of age don’t learn words as effectively from watching TV as they do from interacting with family and caregivers.

Baby sitting on the floor in a diaper and watching TV
Baby sitting on the floor in a diaper and watching TV


Does it matter what my toddler-aged child watches on TV?

You probably don’t need an expert to tell you this, but yes, it does. For many parents, their toddler isn’t the only young child in the house. If you have a preschool-aged child watching educational programs geared toward her age group on TV, chances are the younger child will also be in the room. Taking a cue from her sibling, she’ll want to watch as well. Because the data is still being cultivated in regards to how this affects young children, there are still experts that are deeply split on both sides of the spectrum.


Some say this is fine, especially when a parent is in the room watching along and finding ways to interact with the children to reiterate the lessons learned in the show from shapes to colors to counting. Others say this is not at all acceptable.

Family spending their evening together watching TV at home
Family spending their evening together watching TV at home


What does the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend?

Most parents trust the judgement of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t good for children. It provides a great deal of resources to parents regarding the health of children. In a statement released by the AAP in 1999, it addressed the subject of TV and young children, particularly children under the age of two.


The AAP was on record as stating, “Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged.”


Fast forward to an article by TIME published in 2011, and very little has changed on the AAP’s stance regarding babies watching TV. While TV and electronic devices have changed over the years, particularly in regards to targeting younger audiences with media, the AAP stands firm that even TV promoted as educational for children under the age of 2 is not recommended. The AAP states that it can delay progress in learning for this age set.


Despite this though, the article by TIME pulls data that references a survey where 90% of parents admitted that their child under the age of 2 watches TV. More than half of these parents felt that educational TV was important for small children to watch.

This should come as no surprise since most of these parents grew up during a time when Sesame Street was the biggest TV show for children. However, it should be noted that there are improvements to language and social skills for children over the age of 2 that watch shows like Sesame Street.

It’s the babies and children under 2 that are subject to delayed development of language skills.


The AAP’s other concern regarding watching too much TV is that it causes less interaction between parents and children. Children should be getting their primary language influences and hearing vocabulary from their parents and caregivers more often than they hear it on TV.

In other words, parents that use TV as a tool to busy children on a regular basis are hindering their achievements. They’re also missing out on quality bonding time and play time, easy ways to teach children without having to work hard at it.

In fact, Psychological Science published a study in 2010 that showed babies ages 12 to 18 months learned more words by interacting with their parents than from watching videos that were targeted toward babies.


AAP screen time recommendations

While the AAP discourages allowing children under the age of 2 to watch any TV or videos, it does have recommendations for children over the age of 2 and beyond. The AAP suggests that parents should limit all media including that from TV, videos, and devices to a total of two hours. Quality is essential as well, so it urges parents to choose wisely. The AAP cites that TV has been shown to cause problems with sleep and is also linked to obesity.


Live Science discussed how our blue screens are impairing our sleep every night, recommending even adults tune out devices a good 30 minutes prior to turning down the sheets. If this type of artificial light is disruptive to the sleep of full-grown adults, it’s most certainly a hinderance for good sleep for children.

Additionally, the obesity issue is markedly obvious. As technology has advanced, so too has the rate of obesity in America. Former generations with less access to technology spent time outdoors playing and interacting with one another while today’s generation is lazy with convenience. Even parents play less outdoors with their children, making it a worrisome state indeed.

Very small children watching television
Very small children watching television


Do babies understand what’s on TV?

Children understand much more than we give them credit for. Still, not enough research has been conducted on babies watching TV to give a better answer. While more data needs to be constructed on this query, there are some things that are known.

According to PBS, children pay less attention to TV when they don’t understand the content. Remarkably, children as young as 2 years of age had certain beliefs about brands they saw advertised on TV. Even children that cannot read can recognize logos of big brands.


In another study, one-year-old children avoided objects after they witnessed an actress demonstrate a negative reaction to it on a video. This finding suggests that babies have emotional reactions to what they see on TV in regards to their own behavior.


Let’s talk about TV and obesity again though

Small children can recognize big brand logos. Have you ever been driving with your small child and passed by a McDonald’s? Chances are your child will announce they see a McDonald’s. They can’t read, but they know what it is because of the logo. While TV and smart devices have made us as a whole a more lethargic bunch, there is another side effect to too much TV for children. That comes delivered in the millions of marketing messages that are targeted to us and directly to our young children.


PBS references a 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). In this report title “Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?” which was requested by Congress and sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a review of scientific evidence regarding food marketing influences on the diets of children.

Two little brother boys watching tv and eating candy
Two little brother boys watching TV and eating candy

The information in the report concluded that the marketing practices currently being employed put children in danger of long-term health risks. Children imitate what they see, and when they see advertisements with children like them laughing and enjoying junk food, they want to be like them. It’s a simple marketing ploy that works time and time again.


The takeaway, pardon the pun, on TV in correlation with food is that too much TV does expose children to more unhealthy advertisements that will sway them toward making unhealthy food choices. It also keeps our children more sedentary as the more time they spend watching TV, the less active they are.

Two little brother boys watching tv indoor


Does TV in the background affect anything?

You might think that just leaving the TV on in the background while you look from afar, perhaps doing some chores nearby, has no effect. However background TV has been shown to be a disruptive influence to children. Your children could be playing in the same room or even down the hall away from the TV, but a study published in American Behavioral Scientist found the TV is most American homes is on for an average of 6 hours per day.


The AAP also weighed in on background TV habits of parents who turn on programming for adults. The AAP calls it “secondhand TV” which conjures up images of secondhand smoke. While not quite as deadly, it is an alarming find. Your child might be busy playing with cars or dolls on the floor while you watch your show, but research has shown children that do this look up every 20 seconds. DVR your favorites instead and wait until your children are snug in bed.


TV isn’t all bad though

When you’re talking about children older than 30 months who have limited TV viewing, studies found that some TV can be beneficial for language development. Shows like Dora the Explorer and Blues Clues among others were shown to help children develop stronger vocabulary and more expressive language.


So, in summary, children under 2 shouldn’t really be watching TV, even if it is a show targeted toward them. While in some instances this can’t be helped because of older siblings, parents should make an effort to limit the time children of all ages are around the TV. But for children as they get bigger, allowing a restricted amount of educational programming is beneficial.


How to limit screen time

Now that you know what effects TV can have on the young mind, it’s time to set some limits when it comes to screen time. Here are some tips on how to do that in your home:


   1. Be a good example

Monkey see, monkey do. Kids do what we do. If we’re constantly tuned in to the TV, they will be too. You don’t have to go cold turkey and stop watching it completely, but instead of coming home and mindlessly turning on the TV just for the noise, pick up a book. You’ll notice that the more you do that, the more your kids will too.


   2. Set limits on viewing times

Pick certain windows of time where you’ll allow your kids to watch TV. This makes them more selective about what they watch. For example, let them choose one cartoon in the morning and one in the afternoon. After the show is over, turn off the TV. This is a little tricky to start in the beginning, especially with cranky toddlers, but use your art of distraction as an advantage. Take her to the park instead and get out there in the world instead of watching it flicker by on the TV.


   3. Play together

Make the switch from TV to other activities. You can paint or color together, play dolls, cook in the toy kitchen (or even the real kitchen), race cars, run outside, and so many other things. You’ll get to interact and spend time together. You need this time too. We all have things we must get done but our kids will grow up into adults in the blink of an eye. Your work and responsibilities can wait. Take 20 minutes to be present with your kids and fill their hearts, and watch how much more you can get done after you’ve shown them life outside of the TV.


   4. Turn off the TV during meals

Make a rule that the TV stays off during meals. Phones and tablets should be out of reach too. Interact with each other and teach your kids the art of the family meal and conversation. Even if your child is but a wee one, this will become a familiar habit and will make them feel connected to you.


   5. Don’t put TV in any bedroom of your home

That goes for your bedroom too. The blue screen will disrupt your sleep and affect intimacy with your spouse. Children don’t need TVs in their rooms either. With TV, less is definitely more.


From the time your children are small until they are grown, it’s up to you as a parent to be vigilant about TV habits. So if you are the kind of person that comes home and turns on the TV for noise, try something else instead. Put on music from the radio and dance together. Go for a walk. And don’t turn on the TV for you or your kids until there’s something worth watching.

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