Watching TV seems like a pretty harmless activity, and for older children who watch small amounts this might be the case. But what is the impact of TV on your child's development? Did you know that watching TV could actually be harmful for babies and toddlers and delay their communication development?
Experts in child development agree that three things optimise brain development:
face-to-face interaction with parents or carers
learning to interact with or manipulate the physical world
creative problem-solving play.
TV or computer-game screens do not provide any of this. Watching TV is a passive activity and does not provide real life experience. Time spent watching TV has a displacement effect and stops children spending time on other, more valuable brain-building activities, such as reading a book with a parent or carer.
When reading a book with their children, parents use a more active communication style, bringing the child into contact with words they may not hear in every day speech, thereby improving their vocabulary and grammatical knowledge. Children also learn to build relationships through this type of interaction. In contrast, watching TV is a passive activity that results in significantly fewer descriptions and positive responses from the parent.
No TV for Under-Two's
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that under-twos are not exposed to any television time at all. Dr Dimitri Christakis at Seattle Children's Research Institute found that for every extra hour watching DVDs, 8- to 16-month-olds learned six to eight fewer words than children who spent no time in front of the screen. Marie Evans Schmidt at the Centre for Media and Child Health found that even just having television on in the background while under threes play with their toys disrupted their attention span even when they appeared to pay little attention to it.
The French government has even gone so far as to ban stations from showing programmes targeted at under-threes. Last year it also insisted that overseas cable channels must incorporate a tobacco-style warning: "Watching television can slow the development of children under three, even when it involves channels aimed specifically at them."
And it’s not just very young children who are affected; too much time in front of the TV has been linked with ADHD in older children, and one study showed a link between excessive TV watching in middle age and Alzheimer’s.
Tips for Managing TV Time
In reality most of us do let our children watch television sometimes, but do think twice about letting under-threes watch TV, and bear in mind the following tips as they grow older:
Limit the amount of TV your child watches. About 2 x 30 minutes a day should be the absolute maximum for older children.
Sit and watch with your child – talk about what you have seen, so you turn the experience into something s/he can learn from.
Do not have TV on in the background. Ensure that you are really watching or else turn it off.
Once the programme or video ends – turn the TV off.
With older children, make an agreement as to which programmes they will be able to watch.
Don’t feel guilty about occasionally bending these rules. We all need to make that urgent phone call sometimes!
Download our Factsheet TV and Your Child Fact Sheet (PDF)