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Home » Articles »

TV and Kids under Age 3

By now, most parents have heard about studies that discourage exposing very young children to television. But the reality is that almost three quarters of infants and toddlers are exposed to TV programs before they turn 2.

So what exactly are the dangers? Are any programs or videos acceptable for infants and toddlers? Studies on TV and toddlers are fairly rare, but children's media expert Shelley Pasnik has scoured the research to answer parents' most common questions about young children and television.

  1. How prevalent is TV in the lives of very young children?
  2. Has there been much research done on the effects of TV on infants and toddlers?
  3. Does TV viewing take the place of other activities, such as playing outside?
  4. Does it matter what very young children watch?
  5. Does the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend against TV viewing for children under the age of 2?
  6. Are there differences between girls and boys viewing?
  7. Can a very young child understand what's on TV?
  8. Does TV viewing lead to obesity?
  9. Does having a TV on in the background matter?
  10. Can TV help a young child's language development?
  11. Can parental rules influence TV viewing?

How prevalent is TV in the lives of very young children?


Consider these findings from a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation:

For children under the age of 2:

  • More than four in 10 (43%) of children under the age of 2 watch TV every day and nearly one in five (18%) watch videos or DVDs every day.
  • Most parents (88%) of these under-2-year-olds who watch TV every day say they are in the same room with their child while they are watching TV either all or most of the time.
  • 74% of all infants and toddlers have watched TV before the age of 2.

For children under the age of 6:

  • On average, they spend about two hours a day with screen media - the same amount of time as they spend playing outside, and three times as much time as they spend reading or being read to.
  • 77% turn on the TV by themselves
  • 71% ask for their favorite videos
  • 67% ask for particular shows
  • 62% use the remote to change channels and
  • 71% ask for their favorite videos or DVDs.

For more information: Kaiser Family Foundation's report on Children and Electronic Media.

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Has there been much research done on the effects of TV on infants and toddlers?

Surprisingly little.

Over the last three decades many studies have focused on television and children, with a fair amount of emphasis on preschool-aged children. To date, infants and toddlers have received limited attention. This is starting to change given the big boom in programs and products directed at the very young - videos for infants, for example, have exploded in recent years-but a great deal more research is needed.

A review of current research has been published by the London-based National Literacy Trust and by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Although several studies suggest age-appropriate programs can help preschoolers learn language, there have been far fewer studies focused on toddlers. There is some evidence that 18-month-olds will respond to the visuals of programs with words, especially if the content is of high quality. But other studies suggest children under the age of 22 months learn words less effectively from TV than from interactions with people.

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Does TV viewing take the place of other activities, such as playing outside?

Not really, for children between the ages of six months and 3 years.

However, among four- to six-year-olds, who tend to have greater mobility and independence, there may be a connection. Heavy viewers in this age group spend an average of 30 minutes less per day playing outside and eight minutes less per day reading than children who are not heavy TV watchers. It is not clear why this happens. For example, children who watch more TV may do so because they are unable to go outside or it may be that they do not go outside because they are watching more TV.

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Does it matter what very young children watch?


Programs that are well designed and take into consideration children's developmental stages are more likely to have educational merit than shows not geared toward their healthy growth.

Even more important than the content and construction of a show, however, is the role a caregiver can play. By watching with the child, a parent can find ways to interact during the viewing and take advantage of learning opportunities embedded in a program.

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Does the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend against TV viewing for children under the age of 2?


In 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement about media and children. In it, the organization discussed the benefits media education can have as well as the health risks TV poses to children, especially those under the age of two. Specifically, the AAP said:

"Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (eg, child care providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged."

To read the full statement: American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on Media Education

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Are there differences between girls and boys viewing?


Differences in how girls and boys use TV typically do not appear until the preschool years. Then, boys are known to spend more time playing video games and are more likely to imitate aggressive behavior they see on TV.

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Can a very young child understand what's on TV?

Probably more than we realize, but more research is necessary.

Examining children's comprehension of TV programs is no easy task, but here's what the research that's been done so far has revealed:

  • When television content is not understandable to children, they pay less attention to it. Likewise, the proportion of time that children look directly at the television screen increases during the preschool years.
  • Children as young as two years old were found to have established beliefs about specific brands that were promoted by television advertising and parental behavior.
  • One-year-olds avoided an object after they watched an actress react negatively to it on video, suggesting that infants can apply emotional reactions seen on television to guide their own behavior.

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Does TV viewing lead to obesity?

There may be a connection but more research is needed to understand all of the variables that contribute to a child's health.

The media landscape is riddled with marketing messages than undermine healthy choices. In 2006, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report titled "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" The report was requested by Congress and sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Included in the report is a review of the scientific evidence on the influence of food marketing on diets and diet-related health of children and youth. Although many factors contribute to a child's dietary habits, including genetics and cultural background, the report concluded that current food and beverage marketing practices put children's long-term health at risk. According to the report, "If America's children and youth are to develop eating habits that help them avoid early onset diet-related chronic diseases, they have to reduce their intake of high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods, and sweetened drinks, which make up a high proportion of the products marketed to them."

The amount of time a child spends watching TV also impacts obesity rates. According to one study, the likelihood of obesity among low-income multi-ethnic preschoolers (between the ages of 1 and 5) increased for each hour per day of TV or video they viewed. Children who had TV sets in their bedrooms (40% of the sample in this study) watched more TV and were more likely to be obese.

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Does having a TV on in the background - either in another room or in the same room where a child is playing - matter?

Yes, background TV can be a disruptive influence.

According to a recent study conducted by a group of scholars and published in American Behavioral Scientist, the television is on approximately six hours a day on average in American homes. Yet little is known about the impact of growing up in the near constant presence of television. They studied the prevalence and developmental impact of "heavy-television" households on very young children from birth to age 6 drawn from a nationally representative sample. Thirty-five percent of the children lived in a home where the television was on "always" or "most of the time," even if no one was watching. Regardless of their age, children from heavy-television households watched more television and read less than other children. Furthermore, children exposed to constant television were less likely to be able to read than other children. Also, other research has shown that one-, two-, and three-year-olds' play and attention spans are shorter in length in the presence of background television, and parent-child interactions are also less frequent in the presence of background television.

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Can TV help a young child's language development?

Yes and no, depending on what the child is watching.

Studies have found that children at 30 months of age who watched certain programs (one study focused on Dora the Explorer, Blues Clues, Clifford and Dragon Tales) resulted in greater vocabularies and higher expressive language whereas overall television viewing (including adult programs) has been associated with reduced vocabulary.

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Can parental rules influence TV viewing?

Yes, though not all rules are the same.

A recent study found some parents have rules about programs — pertaining to which shows children are allowed to watch — and some have rules about time — how long the TV can be on. Parents who set time rules reported their children spent less time watching television whereas parents who set program rules reported their children watched more television. Parents with program rules were more likely to have positive attitudes toward television and more likely to be present when their children were viewing.

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