TV, Infants, and Common Sense

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out with a recommendation that parents not allow children under two to watch television. The underlying rationale is that there is a critical period of brain development during these early years that requires interaction with people and objects to maximize stimulation and growth. They seemed especially concerned about establishing the use of TV as an electronic babysitter at an early age.

I certainly wouldn¹t argue that the extensive use of television as a “caretaker” for infants and toddlers is a bad idea. But everything is relative. In a family living at or below poverty level, where parents are simply not available to provide the desired time with their children, is it better to just leave the children isolated or to risk the parents becoming enraged if the children are too demanding of the parent¹s attention? In that situation, it may be a plus for the child to be exposed to the language stimulation and some of the educational offerings now available on TV. My point is that it is usually too simple to just create guidelines without addressing the wide range of life situations that effect child development. In fact, if the AAP, or any other concerned group (hello to all the inept politicians out there) wanted to really do something about helping children to grow up into contributing members of our society, they should be focused on stamping out poverty. Growing up poor is overwhelmingly the best predictor of a bad life. Socioeconomic class matters more than anything else in influencing how a child¹s life turns out.

But this is an article about infants watching TV! The target audience is predominately not poor. The vast majority of parents reads to and plays with their children. Now harried and guilt-ridden parents can struggle with one more concern. Is including TV in the young child¹s experience a bad thing? My reaction: Like just about anything else in life, only if it is overdone. But what qualifies as too much? Does the content count? Is watching TV really as passive as it sounds?

Parents need to rely on their instincts. What is good for one child may not be good for another. A very young child who is active, curious, responsive and developing within normal limits is probably doing fine whether he watches 30 minutes or 90 minutes of TV a day. But a child who is showing some development lags in language or motor skills probably needs a little extra human interaction time and less “passive” time. Notice I said “human interaction” time. Young children benefit from time spent with siblings, peers, and other care-taking adults. Why do we only focus on parents? Research on early day care has demonstrated the positive effects on social and intellectual development from interaction with more people. Our society sorely lacks quality day care.

I certainly don¹t argue with the importance of family interaction. But I am concerned that parents have become too obsessed with trying to maximize their children¹s intelligence instead of just focusing on building intimate relationships. It concerns me that the AAP report didn¹t suggest that there is such a thing as “good-enough” parenting. The implication seems to be that the more time you interact with your infants, the more their brains will develop. But I doubt that if you read three books a night to your infant instead of just one, that she will become three times as smart! My experience suggests that there is a minimum level of interaction needed to stimulate your child¹s healthy development and anything beyond that is just for the fun of it. I think the AAP was on stronger ground expressing concern about school-age children spending hours in their bedrooms watching TV (being overly isolated) or in past pronouncements about the negative effects of exposure to violence on TV, in the movies, and on video games.

I think this issue about infants watching TV was overstated. Most infants and toddlers don¹t stay focussed on anything for very long anyway. The content on TV for young children has improved dramatically. If a parent can¹t be in the room with the child, human voices can be soothing. It really comes down to parents maintaining a reasonable balance in their children¹s lives and to building strong connections to their children over the years. The latter doesn¹t require inordinate amounts of time spent with children. It is just making sure that you give each child some undivided attention on a regular basis. It¹s good for their health. It¹s good for yours.