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TV's Not the Big Bad Wolf

Remember that Baby Einstein study a couple of years ago that showed that those baby videos that claim to boost IQ scores did the exact opposite?

Well, moms and dads, now you can relax. A follow-up study on television's impact on children under the age of 2 has some good news. While about an hour a day of television viewing won't make your kid a genius, it won't harm his development, either.

The study comes out of Children's Hospital in Boston and Harvard and is appearing in the journal Pediatrics today. At first glance, the study's authors found decreased language and visual motor skills in kids who watched more television. But then, the researchers adjusted the results to account for the mother's age, income, education, marital status and vocabulary. And you know what? They found that mom's education level and vocabulary rather than the television greatly impacted baby's.

"This study is really good news for parents," says Lisa Guernsey, the author of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5." "It’s a study about how much parents matter in some ways. It’s basically telling us that TV used at these very young ages is not having a significant effect for good or for ill if it’s a relatively low amount of TV watching. Parental interactions are trumping TVs."

Guernsey notes that the study is flawed in that it doesn't look at the content on television or whether the child is focused on the screen or simply has it on in the background while playing or while watching mom empty the dishwasher, for instance. "We need to take both [the Einstein study and this one] hand in hand and find out if there’s a pathway of something that makes sense for parents," Guernsey says.

So, go ahead, turn on the TV sometimes with no guilt. Just remember, babies and toddlers still learn best from human interaction, not the screen. That part hasn't changed.

What are some of your and your kids' favorite television shows and DVDs these days?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  March 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Babies , Child Development
Previous: Conventional Wisdom vs. Yourself | Next: Multitasking Gone Too Far?


Oh hooray! maybe my mom will get off my back now. After talking and playing with my kids for hours and reading 20 books to them, I turn on the TV to get a break. They don't suffer, and they're not dumb.
My youngest is 3, likes Dora, Diego and Backyardigans. Most anything on Noggin, in a pinch.
Lots of discovery and science channel too, since that's what the older sibling prefers to watch.
TiVo (or competitors) is the way to go. Appropriate shows no matter the hour, and fast forward through any commercials.

Posted by: inBoston | March 2, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

The TV is evil!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | March 2, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

"The TV is evil!"

because . . . ?

Discovery and Natty Geo can't be beat for kids of all ages. How Stuff is Made, Walking the Dinosaurs, etc. I'd rather have my kids watch these shows than insipid moralistic kid-targeted fare. Plus, the commercials (when we aren't there to scan through them) are calmer.

I have no interest in having my kids watch Nickolodeon, beg me for toys we can't afford, and start talking like sassy teen stars.

Posted by: anonfornow | March 2, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

I'll admit that DD watches more than her fair share of TV. I'd held the line pretty well until I got pregnant, but when I had morning sickness, TV was the godsend that allowed me to take a break when I needed to. And then we (foolishly) let DD watch DVDs on a 9-hour road trip. She's now obsessed with The Little Mermaid. The funny thing is, she hasn't actually watched the movie in a good month, but she plays mermaids nonstop.

DD's favorite shows right now are Dora and Diego, though she almost never gets to watch them (not sure when they're on, so I don't TIVO them). Mostly, she watches Little Einsteins and Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, since they're on during our normal "tv time." I confess a fondness for Imagination Movers on Disney and Jack's Big Music Show on Noggin, just 'cause I like the music.

Posted by: newsahm | March 2, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

Why did I have to choose a new post user id today?

Anyway, I went with my own "instincts" that a little screen time (such as computer video podcasts of Sesame Street - 5 minutes each or the show itself on demand) is not inherently evil. 2 yr old DD is occupied and I can get something done like make dinner or wash the dishes. Her vocabulary has certainly improved. She knows words like mustache and squid now too. And I am certain that my entire family benefits from my reduced stress (I can make a healthy dinner rather than have DH bring home take out, again). And yes, I stay in the same room with DD while she's watching. And yes, she also likes to play kitchen, "read" to me, and build towers to knock over when I need to be in the kitchen.

I'm not sure why I ever felt guilty about it in the first place.

Posted by: ishgebibble1 | March 2, 2009 9:34 AM | Report abuse

Spongebob - America's most popular babysitter!

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | March 2, 2009 10:07 AM | Report abuse

Survivor Man on Discovery. My kids won't die of exposure should they get into a spot in the woods.

Posted by: tom_t | March 2, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Our kids like SpongeBob and ScoobyDo mostly. They often watch videos rather than TV and favourites are Thomas the Train, Dora and anything dinosaur. The kids watched The Velveteen Rabbit 3 times this weekend so we try to mix in lots of other softer stories but its tough. It is hard to get them interested in things outside of the crap that is considered mainstream.

Posted by: Billie_R | March 2, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

I was also of the "no TV before age 2" mindset until I actually had a child. It's not a daily thing around our house, but it makes him happy and it gives us the occasional much-needed 15 minutes of peace when he's fussy, so.

We don't have cable or satellite, so our 19-month-old only gets DVDs of the shows we loved -- "old school" Sesame Street and the Muppets, so far. Which is great, except that he now loves Big Bird madly, and Big Bird has all but disappeared from modern-day Sesame Street toys/shows/etc.

Posted by: hillbillyswamp | March 2, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

We generally only watch shows on PBS or disney because I don't want to deal with commercials. At the moment, my DD (almost 4) is in love with Mr Rogers, which was my favorite at that age as well. Actually, the ones they show on Pbs are the same episodes I watched when I was little. I think both of us like his uber-mellow manner. And also the trolley.

Posted by: floof | March 2, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

"DD's favorite shows right now are Dora and Diego, though she almost never gets to watch them (not sure when they're on, so I don't TIVO them)."

Surely there must be some other reason you don't TiVo them. One of the main blessings of TiVo is that you don't need to know when a show is on to record it. Taking 30 seconds to type "D-O-R-A" on the "Search Titles" feature will get you where you want to go.

Posted by: 06902 | March 2, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who suggests that television is monolithic is a fool. TV itself is nothing anymore. It's no longer a medium, it's a thing. That's like saying that exposing your kids to toasters are bad things.

I remember my cousin, age 8, and I were talking about eskimos or something and he talked about pengiuns flying through the air. Freaked out I was like, NO, Penguins live in antarctica and they can't fly, they swim, and they're BIG they're not small birds, etc. My aunt was like, "how do you know all this?" And I knew it and had known it since I was like 4 or 5 from watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom religiously.

So my cousin didn't watch tv but his mother didn't teach him about animals in an educated way.

One of my coworkers sort of bragged that his kid didn't watch TV- BECAUSE THEY USED THE COMPUTER TOGETHER TO WATCH VIDEOS!

Um, going to PBS Kids Go IS the same as watching tv, really.

My kid got obsessed with whales. If you want a kid to understand the size of whales and watch how they swim with their flat tails, how can you do it without watching it on some kind of screen?

Stacy, the phrase "So, go ahead, turn on the TV sometimes with no guilt" is bizarre and insulting. I know more about raising children than you and I blew off your bloviating when you posted this the first time. You were wrong then. You aren't anymore right now. You don't know anything about children, so your columns are nothing more for a place to chat about what the AP said about kids this week.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 2, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"Surely there must be some other reason you don't TiVo them. One of the main blessings of TiVo is that you don't need to know when a show is on to record it. Taking 30 seconds to type "D-O-R-A" on the "Search Titles" feature will get you where you want to go."

well, yeah, I guess I could. I just never really think about it when we have the TV on, since DD's already watching something she likes just fine. And when she does mention Dora or Diego, it's usually when we're doing something else, and by the time we're near the TV again, I've forgotten.

Posted by: newsahm | March 2, 2009 1:13 PM | Report abuse

This is a persistent problem with science reporting in the media: everyone reported that watching TV caused kids to be stupid, when what the study really did was show that a lot of time in front of the TV was correlated with lower verbal and developmental scores. The profound refusal on the part of the media to separate causation from correlation further feeds popular stupidity regarding the way that scientific studies are built and carried out.

The fact that they did not control in the initial study for the income, education level, and verbal ability of the mother is just staggering. Of COURSE people with fewer resources put their kid in front of the TV more: too many demands on the mother's attention, fewer resources, sometimes fewer skills.

Whenever one hears a report that "dietery fats cause fat" or whatever it might be, the only defense is to look at the study itself, see how it was built, see who conducted it and paid for it (these factors all too often lead to a given result), and see whether the way the study was carried out bespeaks major flaws (such as a miniscule sample size, no controls, obvious variables unaccounted for, etc.).

Half an hour in front of the TV was beneficial for my twins. Because during that half an hour, Mommy could SHOWER. Then Mommy might even have time to exhale deeply, brew a pot of coffee, and make two neurons fire at the same time. It had nothing to do with the content of the programming, and everything to do with the fact that my kids were engrossed by the Baby Einstein junk and would sit absolutely still for 30 minutes for the video and infomercial (they loved the infomercial) so that I could catch a break.

Do what works for your family, or what you feel you have to do to make it through the day sane. Don't worry too much about what the newscasters say you should be concerned about.

Posted by: badmommy | March 2, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Tom T -- love SurvivorDude. Just make sure your kids don't mistake him for Bear Grylls -- a/k/a "how to kill yourself quickly and painfully if you get stuck in the wild." I particularly liked the Transylvania episode: "it takes too long to go over the mountain, so let's go under it by cave-diving in a (purportedly) unexplored cave system without any equipment," followed by "now let's rappel down a mountainside even though I know my rope is 50' short, all the while talking about this poor woman who died while rappelling with a rope that was too short."

Posted by: laura33 | March 2, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network are banned in our house as well. There's nothing educational or morally redeeming about any of those shows, and the commercials for junk food and junk toys just cause my older daughter to get the "galloping gimmies." We stick to Discovery Channel and the occasional Animal Planet show (we LOVED "Buggin' with Ruud"), and our older daughter looks forward to Fridays when "The Electric Company" comes on. The menu for both kids is any classic Disney movies or cartoons (rewards for getting all the chores done), Dirty Jobs, MythBusters, Magic School Bus, Muppet Show DVDs, Old School Sesame Street, and How It's Made (not all on the same day, though!). Unfortunately, we don't get the Science Channel...up here, it's on digital cable and we can only afford expanded basic (Science Channel and Discovery Health Channel are the only ones on our digital menu worth viewing anyway).

As far as amount of TV per day, we're still limiting it to 2 hours per day. I'd rather the kids spend their time reading books, playing with their toys (their toys rely on imagination more than batteries), playing outside, or expanding on their school lessons (yes, our older daughter actually wants to learn MORE than she's taught at school, and I'm encouraging that!). I'd rather see them getting dirty and getting fresh air than turning into couch blobs zoning out to crap on the box.

Posted by: dragondancer1814 | March 2, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

Favorite channels in my house are History channel, History International, Science channel, Discovery and National Geographic.

Posted by: morningglory51 | March 2, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Big Bird is on the newer Sesame Street fairly often, actually, or at least he was a year ago when that was the obsession in our house. Then there was a Max and Ruby phase, followed by a Pingu phase, but right now our three-year-old fancies Charlie and Lola or Curious George--the 1960s puppetlike stop-motion version we found at the library. And the short Peanuts motion comics are also a hit in our house, even though she doesn't really get the dialogue.

I think it's best to avoid exposing kids to broadcast TV unless you zap the commercials. The few times we have had grownup TV on in front of our child, the commercials seem to be simultaneously fascinating and repelling her--a sentiment I share--but she can't look away.

We've tried to limit cartoons and anything very fast-paced or with lots of jumpcuts. I just prefer the pacing of the live shows, or those with collage or claymation. I know a child who has watched a lot of cartoons since an early age and I think it has affected her attention span, so that has biased me away from cartoons (though Spongebob has been a hit the two times our daughter has seen him).

Posted by: Restonmom | March 3, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Our 3 year old watches Sesame St, Word World and Yo Gabba Gabba. The 15 mos old does too, by default. My 3 year old probably saw about 2 hours of TV total in her first 2 years of life...we were pretty good about it. It's harder with the 2nd child to keep them away from tv.

Posted by: kimf13 | March 3, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse

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