Babies and Television

Children younger than 2 years old should not watch any television at all.  The experts have been saying this for more than a decade, yet a lot of the parents I know think this is such an absurd idea that nobody could possibly comply with it.

We did.  Almost.  We occasionally took Nicholas to restaurants where a television was playing in the background.  We occasionally turned on the Weather Channel long enough to see the forecast.  When he was 13 months old and the Steelers were in the Super Bowl, Daniel and I watched about 15 minutes of the game even though Nicholas was in the room.

But we never, ever turned on television for him to watch before he turned 2.  When we were at someone else’s house and they had the TV on, we took Nicholas out of that room if at all possible.  I estimate that in his first 2 years, he spent a grand total of about 10 hours in the presence of a turned-on television.  We have limited his screen time since then (he’s 7 now) so that he averages less than 2 hours per day of TV and computer put together.

Why?  Because I’m a developmental psychologist, and I think those experts are on to something.  Early television viewing increases obesity and decreases school engagement. Early television viewing changes the arteries in the eyes, increasing the risk of high blood pressure.  Early television viewing swamps babies with stimuli they don’t understand yet find so visually compelling that it’s hard for them to look away.  The earlier television viewing becomes part of a person’s routine, the harder it will be for them to live without it–and watching television, though it can be fun, is in most ways a waste of time.  Even educational TV programs don’t teach very young children anything.  Before becoming a mother, I read The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn (see my review here) and was determined to protect my child from television.  Daniel agreed with me.

But then, when I was 7 months pregnant, an odd sound made by the elevator at work reminded me of the “Rubber Ducky” song from “Sesame Street”, and I suddenly felt devastated–how could I deprive my child of the joy of knowing Ernie and Big Bird and…and LOVABLE FURRY GROVER?!  I called Daniel, who very sweetly and calmly reminded me, “This is just for a few years. Our child can enjoy TV with us when he or she is older. There’s plenty of time for that.”  Oh.  Yeah.

When Nicholas was a newborn, I taped things I wanted to watch and then watched them while nursing, and if he fell asleep I’d lay him down in my lap and watch some more.  He showed no interest in the TV.  The moment he was done nursing, awake, and wanting to interact with me, I pressed Stop.  Easy enough!

Around 5 months old, he started to look at the TV if it was on, and if I tried the above approach he would suddenly twist around while nursing, oww!!  So I quit watching TV when he was awake.  It was worth it.  Nothing I want to see is as important as raising a healthy, intelligent, well-wired baby.

When we were in places where television exposure was inevitable, Daniel and I did our best to act like the TV was very boring and to keep Nicholas busy interacting with us.  This sort of worked.  It made us very aware of just how visually alluring and distracting a television is even to an adult, even when we aren’t interested in the program it’s showing.

How can you get anything done if you don’t park your baby in front of TV??  Well, the secret is to believe that it just isn’t an option.  There are many other ways to keep a baby busy: give him a toy, give him a household object to examine, put him in the sling and narrate what you are doing, put him in the laundry basket or under a blanket and see what he thinks of that.  If TV isn’t an option, you’ll have to use your imagination!  It’s good for both of you.

After Nicholas turned 2, we began to let him watch occasional TV or play on the computer.  Our policy was that he had to do these things WITH A PARENT.  As tempting as it is to use TV as a babysitter, we realized that watching with him meant we were certain of exactly what he’d seen, and it gave us plenty of leverage for limiting TV time: “No, we can’t watch because I have to wash these dishes. Would you like to help?”  Our involvement also meant that Nicholas learned to appreciate the same shows we like, so gradually he came to understand more of our jokes and analogies; this and sharing books help him to be attuned to our family culture and less heavily influenced by his peers.  Nicholas also picked up on our tendency to be very critical of misstated facts, questionable moral decisions, crazy consumerism, clumsy special effects, and other flaws in programs, and we hope that this will help him all his life to be selective about what he pours into his mind.

Around his third birthday, he became adept at using the mouse, so we began let him do computer drawing or play a computer game on his own.  There was usually a parent nearby to keep an eye on what he was doing and provide tech support.  We encouraged him to spend more time interacting with the computer than staring passively at TV.  Only when both parents were sick simultaneously did we allow him to just sit there soaking in whatever came on PBS–and that’s how we learned that Teletubbies are evil, which motivated us to keep up the supervision and turn off inappropriate shows!

Holding back on TV for the first two years was totally worth it just to see my child’s astonishment and excitement when he first saw those “Sesame Street” characters moving and talking!  He knew them as stuffed toys, book characters, and voices on the records from Daniel’s childhood.  I still get tears in my eyes when I remember Nicholas shrieking with joy, “DADDY!!!  COOKIE MONSTER ON TV!!!  DADDY COME SEE!!!”  He was so thrilled and astonished to see the “real, live” Cookie Monster.  And he certainly did not expect him to eat an M!  He described it to everyone we met for WEEKS!  We wouldn’t have had that exciting experience if we had been letting the kid watch “Sesame Street” from birth.

Protecting my baby from television worked for me!  Visit Mom’s Library for more parenting strategies.