On Tuesday the American Academy of Pediatrics updated it's screen-time recommendations for those under two-years of age. When they first released a statement about television and screen time, in 1999, the AAP urged parents to ban all use of this type of entertainment for a child's first two years. This week, they modified their stance to strictly limit all passive screen time.
For the last few years I've been waiting patiently for an article to be published that sings the praises of television and toddlers, or at the very least pronounces that I'm not rotting my daughters' brains every time I turn on "Dora the Explorer." However, I am beginning to realize that this article may never be written. So I decided to do what any good journalist/mommy blogger would do, I decided to write it myself.
As I expected, I've had difficulty finding experts to back my pro-television stance. I am not pretending that "Baby Einstein" is going to make my child smarter. In fact, there is no evidence that these videos help improve a child's IQ or vocabulary. They may be making them stupider (or is it more stupid?). Two professors at the University of Washington found that babies actually learned six to eight fewer words for each hour per day spent watching these types of programs. Moreover the age with the strongest harmful effects on language is 8-16 months.
According to researcher Dimitri A Christakis, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, a toddler who watches three hours of television per day is 30% more likely to have attention problems in school. There appears to be a definite link between infant television watching and ADHD by the age of seven. Christakis maintains that there are a few factors that may be contributing to the attention problems. First, the baby/toddler brain is developing every moment of these first few years. Television watching is a very passive activity that does not allow for this brain to grow. The second factor is that the super fast, ever-changing pace of television shows is unnatural and the child may begin to see this rate as normal, which can cause quandaries when trying to encourage the child to sit still for a half-hour lesson on the letter "K".
Even more unfortunate is that the adult shows that we actually prefer to watch with our children, such as "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" and "Sports Center" are even worse for babies than mainstream children's programming. This is presumably because these shows demand more of the parent's attention than "The Backyardigans," meaning that we are even less likely to interact with our babes during this period. In addition, adult shows use words and situations far beyond the child's comprehension. All the times that my husband sat with our infant daughters watching the Cubs lose yet another season, the most the girls got from this was visual over-stimulation and pretty colors flashing on the screen. And even though one of Elana's first phrases was "Go Cubbies", I highly doubt she learned any new vocabulary from Chicago's WGN.
When I gave birth to my first child, four and a half years ago, I followed the AAP guidelines as though they were written in stone by Moses himself. Elana was sheltered from almost all screen time, with the slight exception of the occasional "Sesame Street" five minute pod cast while I answered a few emails.
Once the second daughter was born, two years later, I realized the value of a thirty-minute cartoon. My realization began when the baby was a few months old and I was attempting to get her to nap in her own crib. Elana was nearly two-and-a-half and in her first month of potty training. Every time I would leave Elana to play by herself in her room while I soothed the baby to sleep, Elana would pee all over the floor. Then she would scamper into Maisy's room and happily share the news. The next day I began letting Elana watch "Curious George" while I swaddled the baby.
Unfortunately, my second child has not been raised with the same principles. Her first words were indeed "Elmo" and "Why" ("why" was not in the traditional inquisitive toddler form, but as an abbreviation for PBS's "Super Why!").
I understand that parents have been raising children for generations without television or computers, but back in the olden' days parents were also allowed to tie their children to a rope in the front yard while they were off tending the fields. And, after that became socially inappropriate, they were at least able to use playpens to keep the young children corralled while the moms made dinner. Neither of these tactics, however sane they may seem, mesh with the modern parenting movement.
What's more is that we are now spending loads more time actively interacting with our children: Playing with them, reading to them, and even talking with them. Just yesterday I was on the floor of our garage for 45 minutes painting pictures with finger paint and molding animals out of clay. This was on top of reading countless stories on princesses, taking the girls to the playground, and helping them dress their baby dolls. After all that intellectual and creative stimulation, we all needed thirty minutes of Sprout rest time. Thirty years ago parents didn't have the time, nor the sense of parental responsibility, to do any of this. With the ever-increasing expectations placed on parents, maybe we also need to allow for some latitude when it comes to giving parents the occasional break.
Even though it seems quite evident that the toddler and television combination does not have a lot of supporters, there are plenty of reasons why a bit of screen time may be an important part of a family's day. Here are my top five.
After all, life is about moderation, right?
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