Should tots watch TV?

Most kids under 2 are parked in front of the electronic babysitter every day. Author Lisa Guernsey explains how the tube impacts the smallest couch potatoes.

Published September 14, 2007 10:38AM (EDT)

Journalist Lisa Guernsey's first child was just 5 weeks old and colicky when a sympathetic friend introduced the harried new mom to "baby crack," better known as Baby Mozart. The baby-crack-pusher promised that this video for infants and toddlers could buy Guernsey and her daughter some temporary relief. So, Guernsey popped that sucker in the VCR, and along with her 5-week-old, went down the rabbit hole into the strange, fun-house world of children's media, where you're never too young to be plugged in.

As a reporter for the New York Times, Guernsey had covered personal technology, digital media and electronic toys. For her new book, "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five," she scrutinized the most recent research on kids' videos, TV, interactive games and Web sites to try to suss out what infants and toddlers actually comprehend when they look at the screen, and how it impacts them, for good or ill. The book draws on interviews with child psychologists and parents, as well as her own experiences raising two daughters, now ages 3 and 5.

Guernsey comes off as neither an opponent of kids under 5 watching videos -- her own did, and still do -- nor as an apologist for the much-hyped educational claims of many baby videos and interactive games. Notably, she finds as much for parents to be concerned about in background television (when a TV is just left turned on for hours on end even if no one is watching it) as anything that's explicitly made for young kids.

Salon reached Guernsey by phone at her home office in Alexandria, Va., where she argued that letting your child watch the tube won't warp her developing brain, yet it's unlikely to give her a leg up on language development either.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 watch no TV and spend no time in front of the computer. Yet, 60 percent of parents allow their kids under 2 to watch some TV or video every day. What do you make of this discrepancy?

I found that it's pretty unrealistic for most families to keep TV away from their youngest kids, even in well-meaning ways. Many households use the television for information and entertainment, and to find out what the weather is going to be like.

Is there any evidence that young kids today actually spend more time in front of the TV screen than kids the same age did 30 years ago?

I really tried to figure that out. I kept thinking: "Is it just that we have nostalgia for some bygone day when children were forever playing with pots and pans on the floor? Or, are we forgetting that even in the '60s and '70s, there was television on when toddlers were around?"

I never came up with a satisfactory answer. But what I did find is that even some studies looking at time spent in front of the TV back in the '90s showed more television use among young kids, before the days of Baby Einstein, than today.

Do you see videos for very young children as a convenience for the parents rather than as a benefit for the child?

Parents, myself included, have used video to take a breath, to make a bunch of phone calls that they need to make, to unload the dishwasher. I think that video, certainly with these younger ages, is being used as a way to buy some time.

There was a recent study from the University of Washington, which found that Baby Einstein may actually hinder children's language development, leading bloggers to cackle "Baby Einstein makes baby stupid!" Did you find any evidence that Baby Einstein is beneficial in anyway?

I did not. What I did find is that videos like Baby Einstein that may purport to stimulate cognitive development or language learning may not be designed using the principles that developmental psychologists know apply to these very young children.

An example is the way that children learn language. The more a caregiver points to and labels what they're talking about -- "Here's an apple. Do you want an apple for your lunch? It's a red apple" -- and the more the child is able to see that apple at the exact same time those words are being said, the more children will learn. They'll get the word "apple." They'll start to understand the color red. But a lot of these videos are not designed with those principles in mind.

You debunk a lot of the popular beliefs about the bad things TV does to kids, for instance, the idea that when kids watch TV they turn into zoned-out "zombies," or catch attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]. What's the evidence that's not true?

Those were two things that I worried about a lot as a mom. There are no studies that show television causing attention problems. All we have is a link, an association. The more that I talked to experts on ADHD, I found a lot of reason to think that children who have attention problems are either more attracted to television, or their parents use the television more in their households.

Because the parents need a break from the ADHD kids?

It may be hard to focus those kids' attention on a book, it's hard to get them to stay in one place in the room. Perhaps the parents of children like that are finding: "OK, at least I can get 30 minutes or an hour of peace if we turn on the TV."

The other piece is the fact that ADHD has a genetic component. Many researchers see that people with ADHD use the television more, they have it on in their houses more often. So, you have the ADHD parent, who then has the TV on more often in their house, and they're caring for a young child. But to say that looking at a screen for 30 minutes a day is going to cause attention problems, there's just no evidence of that at all.

What about the zombie theory?

The zombie effect is the idea that children mentally clock out when they're watching TV, that they're intellectually vacant.

In fact, what I found is more and more research that shows how mentally engaged children are, particularly after age 2 and a half to 3. They're really trying to figure out what they're seeing on the screen. There are studies done on "Sesame Street" that showed that children could clearly detect a difference at very young ages between a scrambled version of "Sesame Street" and the real one. The fact that they can make that distinction is proof that when they're watching, they're engaged.

At 30 months, that's when a lot of children start to understand that this happened, and then this happened, then that happened. Dan Anderson at the University of Massachusetts, a researcher who has done just decades of work in this area, has found that at about 30 months, when children start wanting to actually sit through a whole book, that's often when they start to be more and more attracted to TV.

They'll want to see how a show ends, and they'll become very upset if you try to turn off "Dora the Explorer" in the middle of the show. They can get that Dora is on a journey to a place, or she's trying to solve a puzzle, and they need to see what happens next.

The flip side, though, is that kids younger that that can't tell the difference when researchers rearrange the sequence of a show, right?

Particularly the youngest ones. In a study done by Dan Anderson, he took "Teletubbies," and he cut it up. He made the sequence not make any sense. What he found was that at 12 months, the children who were watching the scrambled versions showed no signs of seeing that it was any different than the regular.

That doesn't mean that if they see a blue ball, they're not processing maybe color or shape. We don't know exactly what they're getting. But we do know that they're not understanding that the stories being told on video mean something.

In "Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter," writer Steven Johnson argues that the complexity of contemporary TV shows, like "The Sopranos" or "The West Wing," makes viewers smarter. Yet, you found that when it comes to very young kids, children only benefit from the simplest narratives, without a lot of jump cuts.

Children at these young ages need to see things at the pace of normal life, and see that they're going from point A to point B. For young kids, particularly under the age of 4, they're not getting some of the more abstract notions that adults take away from TV -- a character's motivation, for instance. They're not seeing that this character may look kind of evil, but in fact he's trying to help the victim. All they're seeing is long teeth on a dog, or a scary-looking house. Everything is so literal to them.

Anything that is abstract, or anything that is being talked about but not present on the screen, is very likely going over their heads. I've seen this even in shows that are designed for preschoolers, like "Bob the Builder."

You report that in 39 percent of households with kids under age 4 the TV is on most or all of the time. What are the impacts of so-called background TV on young kids?

I think that we're spending too much time talking about baby videos, and not enough talking about background television. There are three places in which we already have evidence of a negative impact.

The first is on the way a child plays, and the amount of time that a young child, a toddler even, spends with a toy. When there is, say, "Jeopardy" going on in the background, the kids go from one toy to another toy to another. And they're not taking as much time with the toy to explore it, or play with it as they would be if the TV was off.

Secondly, parents interact less with their children when the TV is on in the background. And to me that was a no-brainer, because I'm just as susceptible to being distracted by the television as my kids are. But I would have days where I had the TV on and my 18-month-old would be kind of just pushing a toy around the room. And I'd say: "She's fine. She's not even interested in this program." But what I didn't realize, then, is: How is it changing the way that I interact with her? Is it changing the length of time that I might talk to her about something she sees?

Then, the third piece is on language development. Studies on background noise have shown that infants and toddlers have a very hard time hearing the words in speech when they have noise to compete with, when there is background noise. One study from the University of Maryland showed that 7-and-a half-month-old infants could not segment speech very well when there was background chatter. That means that they couldn't catch a word in a sentence. It was just kind of all running together for them.

So, even when your child isn't paying attention to the TV, the sound of it may be having an impact?

I changed my habits at home, after I discovered some of this research. I started becoming much more thoughtful about when I was really listening to the radio, and turning it off when I really wasn't listening. I wanted my children to hear my voice, and only my voice sometimes. I wanted some quiet in the house.

Do you think that kids who are older than age 2 who aren't exposed to any educational TV are missing out? Or, does that all depend on what they're doing instead?

I certainly don't want to judge anybody's family, and how they decide to use TV, but I do now have much more appreciation for well-made shows.

I know that "Blue's Clues" is really well made. I know that there is solid research that shows that it helps children have more flexible thinking. So, I think that maybe 30 minutes of "Blue's Clues" at this moment may be better than them dealing with me being stressed out, and trying to call my health insurance company at the same time that I'm supposed to be interacting with them. When I have those kind of trade-offs to make, when there's a well-made show that I can pop in, I'm going to go for that video.

I look for signs that the show is designed to elicit participation from my daughters. Sometimes that means a character facing the screen, talking out to the audience, and asking a question. Sometimes it's even cartoon characters that do that, like Dora the Explorer. Twenty-four-month-olds really are able to transfer knowledge from the screen to their world, if they are participating and engaged in a conversation with the person on the screen. Just the simple act of talking back to the screen, like shouting out an answer, shows that they're mentally engaged.

What are some signs that a video might be over the head of a young child?

Media that's a little bit frightening, parents watch and say: "Oh, but everyone is OK in the end, and look, he was just pretending." However, children at these young ages often don't remember anything about the resolution, or the motivation, or the plot.

Parents who say, "It's not real. It's not real. Don't worry, it's not real," to really young kids, that kind of information just doesn't help them. They don't know what is real, and what isn't real. There is some research out there that shows it's not until kindergarten or elementary school that children really start to understand the difference between things that are real and things that are fantasy.

So, I think that a sign of a program that is not really designed well for kids is one that unnecessarily scares them; even though it may all look good in the end, all it's done is given them a scary image, and that's probably all they're going to remember.

Can you describe what the "video deficit" is and what it means about the capacity of children to learn from TV or computers?

The "video deficit" is the term given to a problem that comes up in toddlers, and in early preschoolers, up to maybe age 3. When children are offered the chance to learn a simple task on a video screen -- say a toy being taken apart in a couple of steps -- they don't learn it as fast as they would if a person was sitting across the table from them showing them exactly the same thing. They're just not pulling out as much information from the video version as they are from the in-person, real-life interaction.

Researchers are still trying to figure out why this is. Judy DeLoache, at the University of Virginia, and Georgene Troseth, at Vanderbilt, tried to trick children into thinking that they're looking through a window, instead of at a screen. They put a screen that's almost the same dimensions as a regular window, and put curtains around it, and made it look as if the children are looking out a window at a scene, say a room with toys in it. What's interesting is when the children don't think that they're looking at video, they can learn more from it.

What are some strategies that parents of young kids can employ for their kids to use media well?

I learned a lot from talking to other parents. For some parents, they would just make sure that they used the video at the same time every day -- in the morning before breakfast, or when Dad is making dinner. It was an activity that you do in an encapsulated time period.

Often the video is going when a parent is in the room. Yes, they might need to be on the phone, or they're unloading the dishwasher. But they are still aware of what their child is seeing on-screen, and so they're still making comments, when they can, about what the child is seeing. They're still to some degree helping to do that pointing and labeling that we know is so helpful for kids.

So, no, they're not sitting on the couch 100 percent of the time in rapt attention. But what they are doing is: "Did you see the way that teddy bear shared his snack? Wasn't that a nice thing to do?" I know that sounds simple, but those moments matter.

What does the research say about how TV and computers contributes to obesity epidemic?

I found this really fascinating and perplexing. What the studies show is that there does not seem to be an association between the amount of time spent watching TV, and the amount of time spent in active play, at least in children under the age of 5, which runs contrary to what we're hearing out there, that we're raising a generation of couch potatoes and video game addicts who aren't going out to the playground anymore.

There was a large gathering of pediatricians, development psychologists, food marketers and consultants on educational programming, sponsored by the Institute of Medicine, which looked at over 100 studies to find out what part the media is playing in the obesity epidemic. The report that came out of that group basically homed right in on the marketing of high-fat and high-sugar foods. It said that there just isn't a lot of data out there to show that TV is replacing activity to the extent we thought it was. So, let's look at the marketing instead.

You argue that many interactive games for kids are actually quite limited in the participation that they invite from children, despite their vaunted quality of being interactive. What does it mean?

A lot of these new toys are trying to do things for young kids that they just may not be developmentally ready for. One really fascinating example comes from Carolyn Rovee-Collier, who did some of the earliest research on how babies learn cause and effect. She did some research using a train. There was a little switch used to turn on the train. She was trying to see if children at very young ages realize that they were the one making the train move, or that their actions were causing an effect. But what she discovered was that this little switch was so fascinating to the kids that they weren't even focused on the train. Moving the switch back and forth wasn't even supposed to be part of the experiment. It was just the way she, as the researcher, had set the thing up.

She told me: "I think that babies have plenty of ways to learn cause and effect." She suggests that parents experiment with the doorbell [instead of computer games]. "It's cheaper."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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