Babes in TV Land

by Cris Beam

(Illustrations by Randee Ladden)

American Baby. April 2000. Vol LXII, No 4. (www.americanbaby.com)

Why are experts up in arms about babies watching television? Here, they explain why staring at the tube doesn't help - and could hurt - very young kids.

Pat Viera, of Los Angeles, doesn't usually expose her baby niece Alyssa to television, simply because she doesn't watch it much herself. But when she was babysitting last January, she had to make an exception and flip on the Super Bowl. Even at 4 months, Alyssa's eyes widened, her brow furrowed and, Viera says, she seemed completely entranced.

"She was enthralled by the movement and the light, and she could watch it for minutes at a time," Viera remembers. "TV was almost like a drug for her."

The comparison may be apt. We all know that television can be habit-forming. And last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement outlining why TV is dangerous for kids. In fact, the AAP recommends that care-givers don't let babies watch any TV until they hit their second birthday, a suggestion that's been met with a lot of eye-rolling from parents.

How can mild baby-targeted programming be harmful? The problems that adult-oriented TV can cause are easier to understand. Older children watching an average amount of commercial television (21 hours a week, or 3 hours a day) are hit with about 14,000 sexual references every year and, by the time they finish elementary school, have seen approximately 8,000 murders. More than a thousand studies link the growing amount of violence on TV to kids' increased aggression.

But for babies under 2, who are watching baby videos and the tamest of television shows, the dangers are more subtle - and they can be physical as well as behavioral. Doctors fear that prolonged exposure to the tube could impair babies' vision, hearing, and attention span.

"The fact that television's a good babysitter is not enough of a justification for using it when a TV habit might make it more difficult for a child to learn later on," asserts educational psychologist Jane Healy, PhD, author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think - and What We Can Do About It (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

Sound harsh? Keeping the TV off for two years is a little unrealistic for most households. But here's why Dr. Healy and a host other experts - who have your infant's best interests (if not your own sanity) in mind - are so against TV for the under-two set.

THE RAPID DEVELOPMENT YEARS

Although there's little research on television's direct impact on a baby's neural growth, we do know that, in a baby under 2, parts of the brain are going through what's called "synaptic exuberance," during which there are twice as many synapses in the cerebral cortex as there are during adulthood. Babies are absorbing the world at warp speed, and this is the most critical period for language and visual development. Also, at around 18 months, the front right part of a baby's brain - which controls the way he relates to other people - hits a vital developmental period.

For all of these reasons, experts want to be sure a baby under 2 is being talked to and played with instead of watching TV. But this raises a good question:

Does a baby need personal interaction every waking minute? Can't he be allowed to just veg-out in front of a video for a short time?

The strictest experts say no. Babies do need occasional breaks, but they can get them in healthier ways. "Television can't really be used as downtime for babies because it's full of overwhelming sounds and flashing colors," says Susan Johnson, MD, a behavioral and developmental pediatrician in Fair Oaks, California, who has researched television and the brain. "Babies are born with eyes developed to look at the human face, so downtime for them means quiet, calm snuggling with their mother or father." Or, Dr. Johnson suggests, let your baby lie on a blanket and watch light stream into a room, or sit her outside where she can take in the sights and smells of the outdoors.

SOUND ADVICE

Contrary to parents' hopes or beliefs that television can actually teach kids something, such as the alphabet or new vocabulary words, most experts say that kids under 2 get so absorbed in the visual stimulation of the TV that they tune out most of the words entirely. se Eliot, PhD, author of What's Going on in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life (Bantam, 1999), cites a study in which pediatricians regularly placed the hearing children of deaf parents in front of Sesame Street to see whether they'd learn to speak. They didn't.

"Babies learn language by talking to real, live people," Dr. Eliot says. Adds Dr. Healy, "Research shows that babies will listen to a television but won't process the noises at the same level as if someone were speaking to them." So if you're counting along with a television character, your child may begin to pick up numbers, but he probably won't learn them from the show alone.

In addition, some experts feel that the poor sound quality coming from a television may actually impair a child's hearing if he's around it long enough. "Listening to noises kept on one basic plane at the same volume level and coming from just one source isn't a good way to get sound," says Dr. Johnson. "In nature, sound is coming from all around. But with TV, children learn to turn off background noises. Then later on, when they're away from the television, it can be harder for them to tell where sounds are coming from."

SIGHTS UNSEEN

Also, Dr. Johnson says, because television is just a stationary box, young children aren't getting vital eye exercise when they watch it. While staring at the flat, two-dimensional screen, they're pulled away from three-dimensional activities such as playing with a shape sorter or blocks. Skipping out on those diversions is a critical loss, since such play can help a child's 3-D vision, which is maturing up until age 4, says Dr. Johnson.

Furthermore, she says, "When people have eye surgery, they're told to watch TV because it fixes their eyeball in one place so it can heal. But if you show television often to a child too young to read, the growth of the eyeball can be distorted. All of a sudden he'll go into first grade and be asked to read something left to right, and his eyes will feel fatigued."

A baby's eyes become locked to the screen because the images change every five or six seconds and require constant attention. Which leads to another problem: "If they're watching rapidly changing images, I don't think [babies] can process them quickly enough. We may be mis-wiring their visual attention systems," says Dr. Eliot. If a baby becomes accustomed to seeing a continual stream of action, then when she's not watching TV, her eyes might jump around the room to catch that next engaging visual change. "Normal infant activities like playing with a toy or looking at a person promote a longer visual attention span away from the TV," Dr. Eliot says.

While learning to catch fast-moving graphic images is a skill of sorts, the speed of television is creating behavioral problems in its youngest viewers. "In the brain, there's a survival response that causes us to pay attention to something fast-paced," says Gloria DeGaetano, author of Screen Smarts: A Family Guide to Media Literacy (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) and the director of www.GrowSmartBrains.com, an education and resource organization. Our nervous systems are revved up by the visual onslaught, but we stay sitting still. "This affects the youngest kids the most. They get a lot of pent-up energy and anxiety from watching TV; then they act out just to burn it all off," DeGaetano says.

BABY COUCH POTATOES

Perhaps even more insidious than the rowdiness television promotes is the long-term addiction it breeds. Kids crave television once they've had it because it engages their attention so completely-and they don't have to do a thing. "It takes a lot more energy to create your own ideas, and once you get used to being entertained, it's very hard to go play outside or use your imagination," says Dr. Johnson. Also, over the long term, watching a lot of television encourages a sedentary lifestyle. This has led to a steady rise in childhood obesity. "It's just so easy to form a television habit," Dr. Johnson says.

It's not just the kids who are addicted; parents, too, get hooked on popping in videos or turning on the television to make their children happy. While this may work in the short term, DeGaetano claims that parents are keeping their kids from learning critical skills such as self-soothing. "When a two-year-old plays with stacking blocks and they fall down, he cries and gets frustrated. But then he goes back to them, and he acquires the ability to calm himself," she explains. "Children who are strictly spectators don't learn this skill. They're then at risk for higher levels of anger when things don't go their way later on."

A LITTLE TV CAN'T HURT, CAN IT?

Ideally, the experts agree, babies under 2 shouldn't be exposed to any TV. But we all know that ideals can't always be met in real life. Parents are busy, overworked, and sometimes desperately in need of that Teletubbies reprieve. Not to mention the fact that the TV may be on at a relative's house, at a child-care center, or even in a restaurant. Plus, if there's a 5-year-old at home, it's hardly fair to impose a no-TV rule on him just because he has a 1-year-old sibling.

According to Marjorie Hogan, MD, chief author of the American Academy of Pediatrics report, that warned against TV for tots under 2, a little TV isn't that bad. "The AAP statement was so misconstrued," she admits. "If a good parent, in the context of a challenging, loving, nurturing environmen,t puts the child in front of Barney every once in a while, that's fine. Just use your judgment."

Peggy Charren, founder of Action for Children's Television in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a little more forgiving than other researchers. She says that up to a half hour per day with an age-appropriate baby video can be fine-as long as your baby is getting all the love and other stimulation she needs throughout the rest of the day. Still, Charren says, an audio-tape of baby songs can be just as engaging for your little one - and better for her, too. "You as a parent need some time to relax, and you might as well try using music [to engage your child] before you get to videos," she says.

Once your baby hits her second birthday, you can allow her up to an hour a day of screen time (which includes computers and videos) and know she'll be perfectly fine. But what do you do when there are older siblings who can safely watch more TV than younger ones? "This is where parenting becomes an art," says Dr. Hogan. "Maybe you let your older child watch while the baby's napping."

Amy Stanley, mother of Katie, 4, and Josh, 10 months, in Port Arthur, Texas, limits TV for both of her kids. But while Katie first saw television when she was about a year old and didn't start watching videos until she was 2 1/2, Josh has seen TV more or less since birth. "He's not very interested in it, though. He'll watch some shows that are bright and colorful," says Stanley. "And because I prefer him to not watch too much, I'll let Katie watch movies in her room in the evening while Josh spends time with me."

WHAT TO WATCH?

Babies are born imitators, so you need to be careful what you show them. Dr. Eliot says that kids as young as 14 months have been shown videos of a particular action and then, several weeks later, can still remember what they watched and repeat it themselves. They may not be learning the alphabet, but they can pick up dances, a character's funny walk, or no-nos such as hitting from a TV show. So you should watch a video or TV program yourself before you expose your baby to it.

Another good reason for a parental sneak preview is to check for scary characters, says Joanne Cantor, PhD, author of Mommy I'm Seared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them (Harcourt Brace, 1998). Far more important than the story line, or even the happy ending, is the appearance of a frightening villain - even if it's only a short cameo. (Disney movies, in particular, usually feature at least one ominous person or beast.)

"What young children see on the screen will be as real to them as what's in the room," Dr. Cantor explains. "It's not until they're older that they have the abstract reasoning capability to understand that whatever's in the set is not going to come out and get them."

Obviously the violence of television news is inappropriate for kids younger than 8, as are almost all prime time network TV shows. For the preschool set, Dr. Cantor suggests something slow-paced, such as Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Blue's Clues, or Sesame Street. She also says that little kids love watching repeat performances of the same episode, so go ahead and tape a show or two. And most experts recommend avoiding commercial-station Saturday-morning cartoons. Their fast image changes are hard on a baby's eyes, and their story lines tend to minimize negative consequences.

Finally, don't be fooled by the television and video industry's marketing hype, which promises to convey new skills and ideas to babies. "These programs are meant to teach young children concepts, such as sharing, and language," says Dr. Healy. "But what babies are picking up is flashy graphics. A lot of what they're supposed to be learning goes by the board. So they're much better off being taught the same things in the natural world."

BREAKING THE HABIT

So you've already got a house full of television addicts? Joan Anderson, author of Getting Unplugged: Take Control of Your Family's Television, Video Game and Computer Habits (John Wiley & Sons, 1998), offers these ideas for scaling back - or even eliminating - TV from your children's daily lives.

Put it in the closet. "For little kids, out of sight is out of mind," says Anderson, who suggests rolling the TV out for one specific show or video and then rolling it right back in. "Just say the television needs to go to sleep. Kids won't want to play with it in the closet."

Give up on a clean house. While this may seem unrelated, Anderson says a lot of parents use the TV to keep their kids safe and in one place while they tidy up. Instead, clean at night, or, until the kids are about 8 and can help scour and scrub, surrender a bit to the mess.

Provide a replacement. "Television characters become your children's friends, and when you take TV away, they're going to need new friends," Anderson explains. So don't just turn off the tube and expect your children to entertain themselves. "They're going to need to spend time with you, or to have kids from school come over. They need the human connection more than anything."

It's also wise to not have more than one TV in the house, unless the extra is stashed in the adult bedroom. Watching TV should be more of an event than a habit that follows your kids from room to room.

 

Cris Beam is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.