My 12-year-old daughter Sarah, who does not watch much TV, can instantly pick out the kids who do: They're the ones, she says, who look expressionless, the "boring" ones. She's fortunate in attending one of the nation's 140 Waldorf schools, where families are encouraged to keep the TV off, for that means her friends have watched as little TV as she has. I take pleasure in the sort of people they've become. They're curious and genuine, not cynical. They haven't learned from TV that life is treacherous, that the bad guys sometimes win, that sex is paramount and that ridicule lurks around every corner. They haven't absorbed the lesson that consumerism is the only possible avenue to satisfaction. And they read, with voluminous, gleeful appetites.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has been widely criticized -- most recently by the New York Times' Gina Kolata, among others -- for declaring on Aug. 3 that pediatricians should tell parents to keep children under 2 from watching TV.
My response to the recommendation is that it's right-on. Why would any parent want to subject a 2-year-old to TV? Certainly nothing good will come of the experience, and a growing literature indicates that the impact will be negative.
There may be many reasons parents allow their children to watch TV: because they need a break from child-care duties, they need some time for themselves or because the child wants to. These are understandable reasons, perhaps even arguments against the AAP's recommendations. Yet they don't challenge the substance of the report's conclusions. They just underline the lack of healthy alternatives our society offers overburdened parents.
The AAP has been criticized for failing to ground its findings in science, but that strikes me as a narrow view of science. It is true that no study reveals damage to toddlers who watch TV, but according to Dr. Miriam Bar-on, one of the statement's authors, that's chiefly because no studies have addressed the question. Even so, many other studies show the problems that befall older children who watch TV: an increased chance of obesity, poor school performance and aggressive behavior (in response to exposure to violence). Furthermore, the AAP based its conclusion on investigations into the brain development of children under 2. Recent research, the AAP said, "shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills."
Which is precisely what TV doesn't do. Children under 2 are just beginning to walk, talk and think. For better and for worse, the world is open to them: smells, colors, textures all stimulate them. What they see is often near their fingers, since they can't yet focus fully on the surrounding panorama. Put them in front of a TV, however, and they do none of the things their genes are prodding them to do. They're not walking, they're sitting. They're not talking, they're silent. And many studies of TV's impact on children's brains suggest that they're not thinking, either. Maybe they're mesmerized by the flashing of the cathode-ray tube or the rat-a-tat array of images; their brains revert to producing languid alpha waves, as the TV images change before the children have a chance to process them. In commercials, images change every two or three seconds; a toddler's brain takes at least twice that long to process a single image. Younger children don't even know that what they're watching isn't "reality"; it's just another form of reality to them.
It's a perversely seductive, irritating form at that, a kind of sophisticated sensory deprivation. Only two senses -- sight and hearing -- are involved, and they're over-stimulated. Even then, visual stimuli, which arise from a meager three-color palate of phosphors, overwhelm auditory ones. Some people argue that toddlers learn language skills from television, but the evidence doesn't support this. In an interview, Bar-on cited studies indicating that toddlers learn language when they interact with other humans, not TVs. Even children who watch "Sesame Street," which purports to teach language, learn only if other humans are sitting next to them, repeating the TV words aloud. Of course, "Sesame Street's" producers acknowledge that the program isn't even directed at kids as young as 2.
Imagine the child who is being read to, compared to another who's watching TV. One enjoys contact with another person; the other's chief relationship is with a machine. (Even if caregivers try to discuss TV programs with their 2-year-olds, the effort is bound to be futile: According to Bar-on, children can't even distinguish between commercials and regular programming until they're 8.) The reading interaction proceeds at the child's pace; the TV's pace is imposed and often frenetic. One child hears the beauty of the language as invested by the reader; the other hears a disembodied, often cacophonous miscellany. And one has the choice of hearing the same story, over and over again, each time imagining between the lines, conjuring up a different aspect of its world, while the other's programs are arbitrarily imposed. Books stimulate the imagination, while TV, the most literal of mediums, dries it up -- that's why we read the book before we see the movie.
It's intriguing that the AAP's policy statement has become a front-page watershed in the long-running argument over the worth of TV, for ultimately we're faced with a question of values, a moral choice. Experts can try to measure the damage done by TV, but they can't answer these questions any better than we can: Do we want to allow TV-land's strangers access to our children's minds when we so resolutely protect our kids from strangers in public? Do we mean to inculcate small children with the values of consumerism, TV's overriding ethos? Or do we camp them in front of TV sets chiefly because we've given up on finding satisfaction -- for them and for us -- in the unmediated world?
In truth, for all its nearly platitudinous merit, the AAP policy statement strikes me as a political document, an earnest but calculated warning. Bar-on says drafting the statement was a two-year process involving "significant" peer review, "multiple" revisions, and approval by the academy's board of directors, and she stresses that the AAP "really doesn't want to make parents feel guilty." Perhaps it's for that reason that the statement advises them to expose children over 2 to "media education" instead of simply keeping the TV off.
But there's nothing magical about turning 2: The problems that arise when toddlers watch TV merely deepen as they grow older. The only thing wrong with the AAP statement is that it doesn't go nearly far enough.