Go Ahead, a Little TV Won’t Hurt Him

Why doctors’ prohibitions on screen time for toddlers don’t make sense.

How bad are screens for young kids?
How bad are screens for young kids?

Photograph by Lynne Carpenter/Hemera.

At my 1-year-old son Khalil’s doctor visit last month, our pediatrician told us to stop letting him watch TV. Also, no more iPhone, iPad, or computers. Like all babies, Khalil goes gaga for any sort of screen. The sight of an electronic device quiets him instantly, and if you hand him the gadget, it will reliably captivate him for 10 minutes or longer, far more time than he spends with any other kind of toy.

Ever since he was born, I’ve taken advantage of this effect judiciously but regularly, usually to get out of a jam. In his earliest days, I’d lay him on the couch in the morning and watch TV while he drifted off to sleep. When he got older, I’d give him my phone to calm him down in the car or at the supermarket. When he was about 6 months old, I began lobbying my wife to let him have an old laptop as a toy. (I was rebuffed.) And just before he turned 1 year old, I discovered that TV was an ideal way to distract him while feeding him dinner. He’s always been an insufferably picky eater—he’ll kick and scream and spit out much of the food we try to push into his mouth. But if I sit his high chair in front of the TV, his resistance melts: He’ll accept whatever nuggets I offer and will barely even fuss when it’s something self-evidently nasty. (Seriously, pureed salmon?)

Of course, I knew this was wrong. Baby books and child-rearing classes describe TV as a vice on the order of smoking or keeping firearms in the house. Our pediatrician told us that on-screen images move too quickly for kids’ brains, and could thus cause long-term developmental problems. The American Academy of Pediatrics cites the same fear in its strong warning against television for children younger than 2 years old. There aren’t any firm guidelines about non-TV screens like cell phones and computers, but the child-rearing establishment generally prefers old-school activities—reading, singing, playing with baby toys—to electronic devices. American parents, though, flagrantly ignore this advice. A 2003 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 68 percent of children under the age of 2 watch some kind of “screen media” in a typical day—and not a little of it, either. An average baby spends 2 hours a day (about one-sixth of his waking hours) watching a screen, more time than he spends reading or being read to.

I have no intention of plopping the baby in front of the TV for hours on end. My kid spends, at most, 30 minutes a day with a screen, and we’ve cut down his screen time even further since our doctor’s prohibition. At the same time, I’m skeptical of the blanket rule against screens. Sometimes they can’t be avoided, and letting the baby watch or play with a screen can be immensely helpful. The other night I wanted to watch the Republican presidential debate—would it have ruined my son to have let him play in the living room while the TV was on? (I think he would have agreed with Herman Cain’s tax plan.) Or what about when I give my kid the iPad to play with while I take a shower—is that really so bad?

No, it isn’t. After digging into several studies, I found that there’s little to support a zero-tolerance policy on screen time. First, the prohibition against television for babies is based on shaky evidence. While some studies show television is bad for kids under 2, others present a murkier picture. The evidence against phones, tablets, and PCs is far slimmer. As far as I can tell, there’s no research showing that letting your baby play a game on your phone for a short while will harm him in any way.

After looking at these studies and talking to some of the researchers, I’m going to relax about screens. Too much TV is bad for your child—but some TV, and some time with other screens, is nothing to worry about.

The most-cited study on the cognitive effects of TV on young children was conducted by a team led by Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at Seattle Children’s Hospital. The paper, published in 2004, examined the relationship between the number of hours of television that a child watched at ages 1 and 3 and the child’s score on a well-known diagnostic test of attention problems at age 7. The study found a significant relationship between these variables: The more TV that you watch as a toddler, the more likely you’ll have attention-related problems as a first-grader. The researchers reported that this relationship held up even after they controlled for various complicating factors, including parental substance abuse and socioeconomic status.

Yet there are a few shortcomings with this study that make its findings difficult to apply to my life, and probably yours as well. First, the Seattle study only tells you what happens to your kid if he watches lots of TV. On average, the 1,300 1-year-olds in the study watched 2.2 hours of television a day. The authors say that for every three additional daily hours of television that a kid watches at age 1, his chance of developing attention problems by age 7 increases by 28 percent. The study says nothing about whether watching a lot less television would be bad for your child, however. What’s more, it doesn’t look at what kids were watching—were children who watched “educational” TV less likely to develop problems than kids who watched MTV? Finally, the study can’t establish a causal relationship between TV viewing and attention problems. This seems important: Some parents were letting their kids watch five or more hours of television a day. It stands to reason that these weren’t great parents—so maybe it was something about their parenting skills, and not the boob tube itself, that caused these kids to develop problems.

Christakis and other researchers have conducted several follow-up studies that seek to address some of these problems, and much of this research presents a less alarming story. In a paper published in 2009, Marie Evans Schmidt, a researcher at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, looked at a group of children who watched slightly less TV than those in Christakis’ study. Schmidt also took into account many environmental factors that could shed some light on the effects that parents played in a child’s life, including whether and for how long a child had been breast-fed and the amount he slept each night. Instead of focusing on attention problems, Schmidt’s team analyzed the effects of TV on the child’s visual and motor skills. They found something remarkable: There was no effect. After controlling for environmental factors, each additional hour of television that a child watches at or before age 2 is not associated with any change in test scores at age 3.

Schmidt acknowledges a shortcoming in her study—she stopped watching these kids at 3, and it’s possible that their test scores may have been affected later in life. But a 2007 study by Christakis suggests there’s even less reason to be paranoid about TV. This time, researchers looked at what kinds of shows kids watched. They found that toddlers who watched entertainment shows saw an increased risk of developing attention-related problems five years later (and an even greater risk if those shows were violent). Kids who watched “educational” TV shows exhibited no greater risk.

What is educational TV? Christakis’ team looked at several shows, including Barney, Sesame Street, Winnie the Pooh, and Blue’s Clues. All of these programs have a single thing in common—they’re all (agonizingly) slow. They feature long scenes, they often deliberately pause the action to let kids catch up, and they shy away from wild camera movements and garish colors. Christakis says that fast-paced television shows trip your child’s “orienting response,” which is a reflex triggered by novel stimuli. That’s why your kid can’t resist watching cartoons: Every millisecond, there’s something new and colorful on the screen. Not only could this overstimulation cause attention-deficit problems over time, but there’s pretty good evidence that such shows immediately change kids’ behavior. Studies have shown that kids are more tolerant of delay and are more willing to pay attention right after watching Mister Rogers than after being parked in front of Batman or Power Rangers. In one recent study, kids who watched Spongebob scored far lower on a battery of tests than those who sat through a slow-paced educational show.  

Christakis’ research suggests an escape hatch in the blanket prescription against TV: If you need to plop your kid in front of the tube, make sure you flip the channel to PBS (or the Republican presidential debate). There are some caveats here. Christakis points out that while educational TV isn’t detrimental, there’s no evidence that it’s beneficial for your child. The more time your baby spends watching Sesame Street, the less time he has to do other things that we know are good for him, like looking at picture books or playing with three-dimensional objects.

In general, Christakis says, babies’ exposure to TV is comparable to the effects of secondhand smoke. “We know for a fact that some exposure has a detrimental effect, and as a parent, you should try to minimize this exposure,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that if you’re seated next to someone who’s smoking in a restaurant that you should grab your children and run. Ten minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke or to television isn’t going to cause your child any harm—it’s really much more about not making it a regular practice.”

I asked both Christakis and Schmidt about the many other screens that dominate our lives today, and neither could cite any research about the effects of these devices. Christakis pointed out that our computers, tablets, and phones often function as miniature TV sets. (Khalil loves the Wiggles’ videos on YouTube, for instance.) In that case, you’d expect these devices to have the same cognitive effect on kids.

But phones and tablets are also interactive. In the past few months, I’ve downloaded a handful of apps that Khalil has learned to control by himself. His favorite is AlphaBaby, an iOS app that flashes letters and numbers each time he touches the screen. The objects can be moved and resized, and each time Khalil touches one, the iPad reads out the letter, number, or shape name. The app even let my wife and I record ourselves reading these labels—when Khalil touches a triangle, it’s my voice that screams, “Triangle!”

When I described AlphaBaby to Christakis, he thought it sounded pretty good. “From a theoretical standpoint, it’s not very new,” he says. “It sounds like one of those old toys where you’d point a dial to a pig, and if you pulled a string, it would make a pig sounds.” Christakis liked that the app moved at the kid’s pace, and it gave the child feedback based on his actions. He did note that by touching a screen, rather than a three-dimensional object, my son wasn’t engaging his spatial abilities, but that wasn’t a big deal as long as he had other opportunities to play with real-world stuff. “I do have a sense that this kind of app is not harmful, and it may well even be beneficial, especially if the child is using it with a parent,” he says.

Again, though, Christakis is concerned with defining the limits on these technologies: “In the extreme—and I hear about these cases in my clinic, kids who spend five hours, seven hours a day with the iPad—these devices begin to displace other kinds of activities that are important for cognitive and social development.”

At first, the idea that there are some children spending most of their waking hours with the iPad sounded ridiculous to me. But then I caught myself: I spend more than half my day at some kind of screen, and when I’m away from one—when I haven’t checked my e-mail or Twitter in a while—I yearn for a fix. So why am I surprised that children are getting similarly hooked? While researchers who study kids and media say some exposure to screens isn’t bad, they’re right to point out that few American adults or babies are getting just some exposure. According to most surveys, Americans of every age group keep spending more and more time watching and interacting with electronic screens.

This explains why doctors prefer a blanket rule: We all have difficulty regulating our attraction to electronics, so opening the door for a little bit of television or gadget time for your baby might be seen as an invitation to go hog-wild. Yes, some TV won’t hurt your toddler, and, yes, playing a game like AlphaBaby might even help him. Just remember that keeping your finger on the off button isn’t as easy as it sounds. The more your kid watches, the more he’ll want to watch.