Television & Technology: Am I A Horrible Parent If My Baby Watches TV?

My friend Ilima is a highly educated, successful career Mom who reads just about everything, in her capacity as a newspaper reporter. So of course she has come across the American Academy of Pediatrics' warning about television: No "Screen Time" for children ages two and younger. None. Nada. Zip. And she wonders if this warning is absolute, and how worried should she be about it? One of my most popular posts dealt with this issue, and I got blasted by the Stonyfield Farms yogurt people, of all things. They obviously hadn't read my entire post, and who exactly DID write their complaint about me, anyway? But I digress.

The AAP really means business; when they say "no screen time for babies," they mean it. But how realistic is this? And how should we interpret that advice? We wonder, "Hey, what about a Baby Einstein video now and again, while I fix lunch? Is that really so bad?" Or, for families with older children as well, "How about when the Big Kids come home after school and watch a show as they wind down from their day? What am I supposed to do with the baby while they watch something? Will something terrible happen if the baby catches an episode of Hannah Montana?" And if we've been allowing the little ones to watch the tube, we worry about whether we've done irreparable damage to their developing minds. Is all of that college-savings money for naught? Little neurons blown away by Sesame Street?

Our "Good-Enough" parenting selves say, Wait a minute. Surely some well-chosen shows watched for a limited amount of time can't be so horrible.

I say: Your "Good-Enough" instincts are right.

As an Early Intervention psychologist, I pay home visits to evaluate the development of young children. Sometimes, I'm greeted by a huge, blaring television, left on 24/7, with few books or toys to be found. The parents in these homes are struggling with paying bills, keeping food on the table, and other major problems. The children often have developmental delays. Why? Because their parents are struggling to make basic ends meet. Maximizing the psychological and emotional development of their children is an unfortunate luxury they can't afford. High-quality childcare and access to parenting resources isn't available to many in this country.

I'm not saying that developmental delays are always caused by poverty and other environmental problems...but it certainly can be a contributing factor in many cases. And in those homes, a TV being left on 24/7 is part of the whole picture of lack of education and resources that contributes to developmental delay.

The AAP statistics on cognitive deficits and TV look at all kinds of households, and don't discriminate as to the type of television watched. The don't examine all the factors we're interested in here at BabyShrink. So again, we're forced to rely on our our own best instincts as "Good-Enough" parents. Our best instincts tell us that there has to be a middle ground. Based on your comments and emails to me, this is what your instincts are saying:

Don't leave the TV on as background noise. It takes a lot of mental effort to filter out the constant stimulation, and babies have less ability to do that anyway.

Don't let babies watch stuff that wasn't specially created for babies. Minimize the fast-moving shows with quick cuts and changes.

However, don't beat yourself up if the baby ends up watching some of the "older kids" programs. You can't create a PERFECT environment, just a GOOD-ENOUGH one.

And your instincts are backed up by research as well. (This is a good synopsis, which shows that the issue is far more complex than a simple "yes or no" rule.)

You as parent are by far the best teacher your baby can have. No TV show can even come close. If you've somehow ended up leaving the TV on more and more, re-think how to manage your day and the kids with less TV. Quiet has a way of stimulating creativity, for everyone.

By the same token, it's OK if your baby watches a little quality TV now and again. Not only is it enjoyable to her, it gives YOU a break for a few minutes. And I'm very interested in supporting you in your ability to get a break from time to time. Because that's good for YOU -- and what's good for YOU is ultimately good for your whole family.

And the AAP statistics didn't examine that.

Television & Technology: Shhh... I Let My Kids Watch TV!

Hi Dr. Heather! I got your link from Dad Gone Mad, and love your site! I think it's wonderful to have someone sort of "official"; to converse with, as opposed to other moms who are, like me, just guessing at solutions!

My husband and I have a 2 1/2 year old girl, who is basically a VERY sweet, loving, funny kiddo. We are having a lot of fun with her at this stage, but I have a lot of questions. I love being her mom, but parenting is so hard sometimes! So my question is: How horrible is TV, really? I mean, we let her watch in the morning before going to daycare, and at night, but we watch educational stuff (well, mostly... like Little Einsteins or Miss Spider. Okay, sometimes we digress and watch Sponge Bob or Phineas and Ferb... okay, we do that A LOT lately - man, you're good at getting folks to talk...) :) I'd say it's maybe 2-3 hours a day, or more on weekends? I feel horrible even admitting this because I'm sure you're going to tell me I'm a BAD EVIL MOMMY. The TV thing makes me feel so guilty, but, honestly, she likes it and when there's nothing else to do, it helps me get things done! (Be gentle!)

Katie Kat Lawrence, KS

Dear Katie Kat,

Your question is great. Don't worry, no scoldings. In my house, we are All Backyardigans, all the time. (Not really. But plenty.)

"Do you let your kids watch TV?" is one of the most loaded questions we, as parents, ask each other. We hear snippets in the news about TV making kids turn into zombies with no ability to concentrate in school, socialize, or entertain themselves. We hear parents swearing they will not expose their children to TV, and feel ashamed to admit that we can't imagine life without it! We wonder how the heck to get dinner on the table (or just sit down to think for a moment) without turning on the tube. And really, is Sesame Street so harmful after all?

Your question led me to seek out a television research expert. Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD, is one of the foremost researchers in the field. He is a Director of the Child Health Institute at the University of Washington, and co-author of The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work For Your Kids. Dr. Zimmerman gave me permission to quote his very interesting book. Page four says, "Parents should not feel guilty, powerless or even indifferent about television, however; its effects need not be adverse, and they are most certainly remediable. Television viewing can be beneficial. It can be entertaining, broadening, and educational. It just has to be used properly." The authors go on to describe the most important issues in TV-watching for kids:

  • What is being watched? Content matters.
  • How much is being watched? Amount matters.
  • What is the context in which TV is watched? The rest of the child's life and environment matters.

The book also explains that this new age of DRVs and TiVos is terrific for kid TV-watching, since it allows us to zip out the commercials and other negative stuff we don't need them to see. Here's Dr. Zimmerman's website for more useful info.

As far as the BabyShrink's house goes... we do watch TV, but I am pretty strict about what we watch. I agree that the content of the shows is so important.....and that's what worries me most, not a Little Einstein or a Super Why or Miss Spider. But the Sponge Bob type stuff is a little too fast-moving, hectic and aggressive for me, and I think it can have an effect on the younger kids, especially. I am all in favor of using TV when you need a break to make dinner (or chat with a friend!), but obviously it shouldn't be a long-term babysitter. (I know you're not doing that.) Really, it should be in moderation; make sure they are getting physical outside play every day; the TV content should be as benevolent as possible; and then don't feel guilty about it!!

Dear Readers: Next time, more from Katie Kat on Potty Training Problems....she had a lot of great questions!

Now go ahead, you know you want to comment about TV-watching and your attitudes about it! I know Katie Kat is not alone in her TV-viewing dilemma. I can't wait to see what you all have to say about this post! (And don't be afraid to disagree!)

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink