Child Development: No TV for Kids Under Two?

It was formerly a recommendation by professionals that children under the age of two should not watch any TV because it is believed to delay development.  What was previously a recommendation has become a mandate.  The AAP (American Academy of Paediatrics) have stepped up their recommendation and now warns parents against allowing their under twos to watch TV.

What are the reasons against TV for the under twos?

1. Young children cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality.

When I was pregnant with Gavin, the general advice from a lot of child development books was: “no TV for children under the age of two years”.  There are many reasons for this, but the one I heard about was that many children’s programs have fantastic stuff like talking trains and animals which do not accurately portray real life.  An older child might know that trains and animals do not talk, but a baby trying to make sense of the world around him will be confused.

After Gavin was born, I had all the best intentions to keep him away from the TV but I failed.  It started with Ah Kong’s Nat Geo and Animal Planet.  I consoled myself that he was watching documentaries which portrayed real life so there could be no harm in that.

One day, Ah Kong turned on the Play House Disney channel for Gavin and that was where it went downhill.  I could have been more strict about it, but I chose to let it go.  Again, I consoled myself because he was watching TV programs made specially for children which is definitely much better than the stuff I used to watch when I was a kid.

2. TV does not interact with the child.

Another argument against letting young children watch TV is that TV talks at you.  It doesn’t respond to children the way a real person would.  Basically, there is no interaction.  However, if you watch a lot of children’s programs these days, they are made to interact with their child audience.  You see the Little Einsteins asking their audience questions from time to time whenever they run into trouble, and likewise for many other children’s programs on Play House Disney. Surely this countered the “lack of interaction” argument, didn’t it?  Well, we’ll get to that later.

That children under two should not watch TV was a recommendation.  The experts weren’t exactly saying “no”, but they were advising against it.  If you had to let your children watch TV, then at least watch the programs with them so you know exactly what they were watching.  Well, that was exactly what I did with Gavin.  In fact, I watched all his Thomas and Friends episodes so many times that I could tell the story by heart.

And then I got him all those baby/toddler-specific programs that were supposed to boost his development – Signing Time, Tweedlewink, Your Baby Can Read.  TV programs specially designed for babies didn’t count did they?  Surely when they said no TV for children under two they weren’t talking about these baby-specific programs.

By the time you add it all up, the amount of TV Gavin was exposed to was anything but light.  Well, you know what they say about crossing lines – once you’re over, you’re over and all hell breaks loose.

3. TV delays development in young children.

Then there was the argument that TV delayed the development of very young children.  According to the research, children learn to speak not only by listening to what is said but by observing facial expressions and reading lip movements.  A child watching a TV program is unable to observe either of these.  Even programs that showed the face of a person did not have the same effect as a live person talking to the child.  That is because the programs did not respond to the child’s unique responses the way a live person did.

Admittedly I’ve only got a study with a sample of one but the results from my sample of one flies in the face of this argument.  Gavin’s speech was anything but delayed.  In fact, he’s language acquisition is precocious for a child his age.  Everywhere we went there were comments about how well-spoken Gavin was for his age.  It almost seemed as if TV had positive effects on Gavin’s language acquisition.

If TV really delayed development in young children, then would it be right to assume that Gavin would be even further developed if we had cut out all of his TV time?  Were the negative effects of TV effectively countered by my personal interaction with Gavin on a daily basis?  Or is it possible that TV might not have a blanket negative effect on young children?

Have you heard about the “Super Size Me” documentary?  It was about a man who ate nothing but Mc Donald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month and had his health deteriorate so dramatically that his doctors strongly advised him to stop the program in fear for his life.  Based on that documentary, it was concluded that eating junk food like Mc Donald’s on a regular basis was not only unhealthy but it could kill you – literally.  Some time later, a Swedish study conducted by a lecturer following a group of his students on their month long diet plan of junk food was released with surprising results.  Some of the subjects in that study remained unaffected by the “deadly” diet of junk food and were in considerably good health after the month of unhealthy eating and minimal exercise.

Can we account such differences to genetics?  And if such differences exist for health, can we also assume that the mental development of some children are not affected as badly by TV and perhaps even not at all?

4. TV is a distraction that interrupts a child’s thought processes.

Even TV that is on in the background and not actively watched by a child is believed to have a negative impact on the developing mind of a child because it interferes with the child’s thought processes and concentration.  Parents are not only advised not to allow their under two’s to watch TV but to limit and avoid watching their own programs in the presence of the children.

Although I’ve been trying to limit Gavin’s exposure to the TV of late, I’m afraid this one’s impossible when there is a TV in the family room that is on for a large part of the evening and on the weekends.

5. TV leads to decreased attention spans.

It has been suggested that the increase in television viewing among young children, especially, might be linked to the increase in the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD.  Is TV the cause?

Coming back to my study with a sample of one, I do wonder at times if Gavin’s short attention span with certain activities might be due to the fact that I’ve exposed him to too much TV at an early age.  Then again, I also question myself exactly what is considered a “short” attention span especially when we’re talking about kids?  Young children do inherently have short attention spans and it is normal.  So what constitutes an abnormally short attention span?

While I’ve seen Gavin flit from activity to activity like a butterfly between flowers, there have been times when he has demonstrated considerable focus in a specific activity.  Two activities which he has demonstrated the ability to focus on for a good period of time are his Thomas and Friends trains and his ball house.  So is it fair to say that Gavin has a short attention span possibly caused by too much TV?

6. TV breeds addiction.

When he was little, Gavin appeared to be immune to the addictive quality of TV.  He would watch a certain amount of TV before he told us he didn’t want to watch any more.  These days, however, he appears to be a growing couch potato.  All he seems to want to do some days is watch TV.

Then again, I’m wondering if it is a true addiction or merely one spurred by our reaction to his TV watching.  Because we’ve been alarmed by the amount of TV he’s been watching, we have begun to set limits.  The setting of limits has cause him to protest and fight for more TV.  Yet there have been days when I’ve been ill and allowed him free reign over the TV because I’m too tired to entertain him.  I find that on these days, he eventually tires of the TV after a while and requests to do something else on his own.

7. TV increases the risk of obesity, poor social development and aggressive behaviour.

If I recall correctly, I remember Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman debunking the belief that TV increases the risk of obesity in their book “Nurture Shock”.  Although they still agree that TV time should be limited, they found studies that invalidate the link between obesity and TV viewing.

Poor social development and aggressive behaviour were, however, linked to watching TV.  This was the case even with programs targeted towards young children.  The reason behind this is because many of the programs targeting young children which attempt to teach morals spend more time setting up the story which demonstrated to children new ways to bully and hurt others.  The moral of the study where everything has been set right is usually summed up too briefly at the end of the story.  While older children can concentrate long enough to follow the lesson at the end, young children often miss the point entirely.  All they learn is the conflict because it forms the bulk of the story.

8. TV increases irrational fears in young children.

This is possibly about the only thing I can concur with based on my observation of Gavin.  There are some episodes of Thomas and Friends that he refuses to watch because they frighten him.  There appears to be no rhyme nor reason for the fears.  Personally, I’m not sure why he is afraid of those particular episodes because I see nothing he should be afraid of.

Conclusions

Based on my experiences with Gavin, I am hard pressed to say that TV has impacted him negatively.  That doesn’t mean I’ll give Gavin a free reign over the TV, nor does it mean I’ll let Gareth watch TV indiscriminately either.  All I’m saying is that I don’t think watching TV at a young age has really affected Gavin.  Given a chance to do it all over again, maybe I might have done things differently.

Please share your experiences and opinions.  Has your child watched TV under the age of two?  How do you feel TV has impacted your child?  Do you agree that TV delays development, decreases attention span, etc.?

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Child Development: No TV for Kids Under Two?

  1. Another concern of TV-watching is myopia. Singapore has among the highest rate in the WORLD.

    My 14-month has yet to watch any TV programme or DVD; I intend to let him start when he is at least 3 years old. In the meantime, he is kept busy with home learning (with me) and free play. I hope to engage him in enough interesting activities so that we would have no time for TV. 🙂

    Anyway, he has developed very well in terms of speaking, signing, walking, doodling, moving with music, fine motor skills, toilet-training, etc. and I can’t imagine TV helping him learn in any way better than me (his parent).

    A bit of TV may not delay development. However, if that little time has been spent on even more enriching activities such as creative play, craftwork and music, the time adds up and the child may learn even more, and develop even better. E.g. 30min of TV a day x 365 days = 182.5 hours of more enriching activities forgone.

    Watching TV incurs an opportunity cost of forgoing more effective ways of learning.

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  2. Dang! That’s the one I forgot to add – myopia. I knew I forgot something. Thanks.

    I know it isn’t really a good excuse but I think part of the difficulty on the TV battle for us is the fact that we live with my in laws. My FIL is a couch potato so whenever he’s home, the TV is on. The only way to keep the kids away from the TV is to deny them access to their grandfather which isn’t right either. Neither can I tell my FIL to stop watching TV in the presence of the kids.

    Keeping the kids busy is definitely an effective way to keep TV to a minimum. There was a period in my life when I never turned on the TV because I was so busy between work and rock climbing. It was bad in my case because I really needed to watch TV to keep up with my competitor’s ads.

    I don’t disagree with you that TV time takes up time for other more enriching activities – but that is assuming you are a parent who plans every minute of your child’s day making sure he is engaged in a valuable activity. Personally, even on my best day, I don’t do that with Gavin. Now that Gareth is around, it’s even worse.

    When Gavin was younger, I would watch all his programs with him. Sometimes I would turn off the volume to Thomas and read the subtitles out to him. When we watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Little Einsteins, I would respond to the TV and move Gavin’s arms.

    These days, in an effort to break Gavin out of the TV cycle, I’ve managed to engage him with after school activities – music, Heguru, baking. Some days, TV time has been successfully limited to the background TV of my FIL’s programs.

    I think it is difficult to avoid the TV factor altogether with the extended family around. Even now, Gareth is already exposed to TV and programs that I don’t agree with either – my MIL and FIL often hold Gareth facing the TV while they watch their programs because it keeps him quiet and they get to watch in peace. For the sake of harmony in the family, I keep quiet about it.

    Both my MIL and FIL don’t think there’s a problem with Gareth watching TV. My FIL thinks Gareth is too young to understand. I’ve told Gavin before that Gareth shouldn’t watch TV because he’s too young. Being the parrot that he is, Gavin would repeat that in front of my MIL who then replied that there was nothing wrong with Gareth watching TV. Sigh…

    So yes, in an ideal world, I’d keep the kids away from the TV. Alas, I do not live in an ideal world, so I try to make the best of it.

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  3. I certainly understand the background TV part. Interestingly, the principle of Singapore / Malaysia Shichida centres mentioned that even background TV affects the child because he can absorb everything around him, whether by looking or listening.

    Anyway, my husband agrees on the no-TV-rule and has told his family about it, so no one carries the boy to watch TV. Even when I’m back at my mum’s place, she records her programme to watch after the boy’s asleep. When I couldn’t resist watching Hong Kong drama serial some months back, I watched by turning the volume really low, reading the subtitles and using sofas to block my boy’s view while he played with toys.

    I’m thankful that the family is very accomodative of our preferences.

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  4. Yes, that’s true. Heguru and TweedleWink also agree that babies absorb everything around them because they are predominantly right brain. The right brain has no limits, no filter so everything just gets absorbed into their subconscious.

    Upbringing and parenting is very sensitive here. I guess that is one of the downsides of living with the extended family – everyone has a say about things and in order to maintain harmony (since we all live together), I have to be flexible about some things even if I don’t like it.

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