No TV for Toddlers? Why Restrictions Are Necessary
Find out why experts advise parents to restrict TV for toddlers
Behind the Scenes
In 1999, two years after the world met Baby Einstein and the Teletubbies, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a recommendation: no TV for kids under two. Parents often consider this suggestion from a group of approximately 60,000 pediatricians and pediatric specialists as they decide at what point to let their children watch television. But how did the AAP decide on this guideline, and why did it pick the age of two?
“I know the machinations of how that recommendation occurred,” shares Dr. Donald Shifrin, MD, chair of the AAP’s Committee on Communications and a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The AAP began thinking about the issue of TV for children under two when Teletubbies appeared on public television in the late 1990s, he explains.
“The two-year-old market went bananas for it,” says Dr. Shifrin. As opposed to Barney, a program that focused on children who could talk, and Sesame Street, which targeted preschoolers, Teletubbies was “a preverbal program—the Teletubbies barely spoke. They drifted across this kaleidoscopic landscape of color,” says Dr. Shifrin.
The program was wildly successful, selling millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise, and other television producers couldn’t help taking note. Given this economic success, the members of the AAP’s Committee on Public Education thought, “If this is the future of TV, that kids under two are now going to be demographic targets for programming, then we would issue a caveat,” says Dr. Shifrin, who was a member of that committee which wrote the 1999 guideline.
The AAP’s original guideline appeared in an August 1999 policy statement called “Media Education.” It is one of nine recommendations in that paper and reads:
Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of two 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 (e.g., childcare providers) 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.
The committee deliberately used the terms “avoid” and “discourage” rather than anything stronger: “What we’re pleading for is prudence, not huge restrictions,” explains Dr. Shifrin.
The Burgeoning Brain
Pediatricians and researchers readily acknowledge that we do not know everything about the brains of children younger than two. The AAP’s recommendation, then, is based more on the proven benefits of having young children interact with caregivers rather than on extensive research into the negative effects of television on young kids.
“The first two years of life are probably the period of the greatest brain growth,” says Dr. Regina Milteer, MD, a member of the AAP’s Committee on Communications and a pediatric hospitalist in Falls Church, Virginia. “There’s been no research that supports children learn better from inanimate versus human interaction.”
Before age two “is the time when it’s most important that they have people touching them, talking to them, playing with them, interacting with them, because their little brains are like sponges, and they’re taking all this in, and they’re learning to interact as they continue to grow,” Dr. Milteer says. “There’s no data at this point that indicates that they even understand what they’re seeing or hearing when they look at a television.”
Dr. Kevin Passer, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, agrees that creating bonds between parents and children is key at this age. “I don’t think that it can do any harm for parents to follow those guidelines, and I feel that watching TV could potentially be harmful,” says Dr. Passer, who is also creator of The 20-Minute Behavioral Miracle DVD. “If your kids aren’t watching TV, then you as a parent have to pay more attention to your kids and . . . interact with them in more of a social way.”
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