Posted by: Ticktock | March 3, 2009

The Neutral Effect of Television on Toddlers


I’ve always thought that the expert warnings against children watching excess TV might be based on bogus presumptions.  Yes, it is possible that TV is making children dumber, but it is also possible that parents who let their children sit for hours in front of Nick Jr. are neglecting them intellectually.  In other words, it may not be the TV itself that is retarding the mind, but more likely the lack of parental interaction.

Backing up my amateur theory, a recent Harvard study has been published in Pediatrics showing that the amount of television watched by children under the age of two doesn’t affect their intelligence at age three.  In this study of 872 children, television posed neither harm nor benefit.  Initially, the results showed a correlation between excess television and low test scores, but the link disappeared when adjusting for several socioeconomic factors.

This brings me back to my point that the children of higher educated parents are more likely to have a supplement of reading and interaction.  It’s not the TV that is doing the harm.  I’ll be interested to see if the researchers follow up this study to determine if the neutral effects remain as the children age, or if there is a regression among the excess television group.

I do let my daughters watch some television, but lately they’ve been on a TV diet.  Their behavior seems better (less selfish, less whiny) when they are restricted.  However, I do not want to feel guilty every time I allow them to watch an episode of Sid the Science Kid or, god forbid, a Disney movie.  France has banned television programming directed at pre-school children.  I think there are a whole lot of adults who were once raised on huge helpings of Big Bird and Cookie Monster that would disagree with France.

What do you think?



  1. I’ve always been highly skeptical of the tv=idiocy theory for two reasons. The first is entirely anecdotal, in that many of the smartest people I knew in high school watched tons of TV as kids. The second is that the studies claiming to show a negative effect were generally poorly designed and the studies that were well designed generally were inconclusive.

  2. Yeah, I’m not convinced that watching TV makes kids dumb. I think the bigger problem with TV is the ridiculous amount of advertising. When I have children, they will only watch PBS or DVDs with no commercials.

  3. I’ve never thought that TV makes kids dumb, but I really don’t think its harmless either. Time spent in front of the TV is time taken away from exploring and playing. I had almost no TV exposure as a kid and, as a result, I was always out learning new things, reading, playing all sorts of imaginative games. I remember my frustration when I would want to go out and see if I could spot a fox, for example, but all my friends wanted to watch Bugs Bunny or Sesame Street instead.*

    When I finally got a TV, I remember how stressed I felt. I feel drained when I watch TV. I’m not sleeping so I’m not resting, but it’s so hard to get moving after spending even just half an hour in a completely passive state. It’s addictive. The years we had a TV were definitely dark years. I didn’t read as much, I felt stressed all the time (because TV sucked all my time away), I hardly learned any new skills, and I didn’t interact with my family nearly as much. When we got rid of the TV again, we went back to cooking big elaborate meals every night (kitchen time is the best time), talking more, and going outside more. I also feel much calmer.

    So while you may well be right that TV-watching has no developmental or neurological side effects, it does take time away from the things that are really important, it’s a time-sink, it’s incredibly addictive, and it’s utterly passive. It’s just not the kind of thing I want my own kids introduced to until they are old enough to rationally weigh the consequences of spending an afternoon in front of a screen.

    *So I went out with my mom instead. We did see a fox 🙂

  4. I agree, t.v. in and of itself is probably not the mechanism by which kids become “dumb” or “dumber.” The study you mention is a good one for making the argument for all the other factors that correlate with, and hinder, intellectual development in kids. But there are some negative things to be said:

    A meta-analysis (that I can’t freaking find right now) and lots of individual studies have linked VIOLENT t.v. watching and aggressive behaviour. Here’s just one with the link in early childhood:

    D. A. Christakis, F. J. Zimmerman (2007). Violent Television Viewing During Preschool Is Associated With Antisocial Behavior During School Age PEDIATRICS, 120 (5), 993-999 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2006-3244

    And the whole “Baby Einstein” thing has been generally debunked — for every hour that toddlers (under 2, if I recall correctly) watched these videos, they had acquired 8 (I hope that number is right…) less words than their non-Einstein watching counterparts. For some reason, I can’t find the original study recently published (sorry).

    So, yeah, it won’t necessarily make you dumber, but probably won’t make you smarter either. And there are several cognitive development studies showing that kids learn significantly faster through human interaction than through similar instruction over the tv. But when I’m cooking dinner for 8 and need my kids to let me prepare for 30 min before the guests arrive, Mary Poppins is the bomb!

  5. “Excess TV” is not good, “excess anything” is bad, moderate is the key. Kids can learn a lot by wonderful TV programs, however, they need breaks to rest their eyes and need time for physical activity as well. Balance!

  6. I have not read the study you sight, but would be very skeptical of the Christakis work. Christakis is also responsible for the study supposedly linking television viewing to ADHA. In that case it turned out that the study was retrospective, self reporting, and that the diagnosis’s of ADHA had never been confirmed by physicians.

    Even if there were a link, unless we control for genetics we don’t know if it’s he case that non-aggressive children are made aggressive or that children who had naturally more aggressive dispositions are attracted to more violent television.

    This whole TV discussion is minefield. My own suspicion is that it isn’t even really about TV…

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