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Toddlers and Television: Making Sense of the Research

Posted by Patience on May 14, 2010 at 7:00 AM in Media
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Two new studies have come out in the last few weeks about the effects of television on young children and their later development. You can read about them here and here. I must admit these kind of studies make me dizzy trying to sort them all out, which was why I was so excited to interview David Kleeman, the President of the American Center for Children and Media. He's also an advisor for PBS KIDS.

This is the man who originally wanted to be a preschool teacher, then a children's program producer and somehow ended up at Harvard. David now leads ACCM in "leading the children's media industry in developing child-friendly, sustainable solutions to long-standing and emerging issues."

While talking with David, I enjoyed listening to his stories about his own two daughters who are now grown. I also asked him to help me make sense of toddlers, television and the long term relationship.

So David, it seems like at least once a year a new article rolls in about a new research study that reports a negative impact of TV viewing on very young children. As a parent of four children, two of whom are under the age of five, I must admit the guilt starts flowing every time I read one of these studies. I try to be careful about what my kids watch on TV and believe they are benefiting from watching quality programs. Am I wrong, what's the deal? Don't hold back David, I can take it.

Wow, I'm glad my kids are grown! With all the prescriptive parenting books and the steady flow of studies that say everything you've done is wrong, it's a wonder parents of babies and toddlers aren't paralyzed by fear of doing anything! A colleague and I have talked about writing a "reverse parenting" book -- start with fascinating adults and ask what in their childhood made them who they are today!

In my opinion, you're doing it exactly right. You are setting limits and choosing carefully, and it seems not using the TV as an extended babysitter or background noise. There is good research finding that moderate viewing of educational programming has mid-term and long-term educational benefits. The first studies that come to mind include a longitudinal study of "Sesame Street" and research on literacy gains from "Between the Lions."

I would love to convince all "sides" in this debate to stop making parents feel guilty. Marketers and parenting writers need to avoid suggesting that their way is the only path to brilliance, and researchers and activists need to stop suggesting that any child who passes through the warm glow of a screen is doomed to a seat in the back row, eating paste.

For example, this is the release from the University of Montreal. I'm actually shocked by the editorial tone of the release, which seems determined to reprimand parents -- "parents show poor factual knowledge and awareness of such existing guidelines" and "common sense would have it that TV exposure replaces time that could be spent engaging in other developmentally enriching activities and tasks." I always find this last claim especially grating, as though children's lives are one-dimensional and every moment has to be programmed for learning; this plays straight into the hands of those who market "the answer" to making kids smart.

By the way, I am fine with any family that decides no screen time is the best choice for them; my problem is with people and organizations who advocate that it's the right choice for everyone.

In just the last couple of weeks two new studies have been released, both conducted by researchers in Canada. One says there is a link between time spent watching TV when kids are under five and poor school performance when the kids reach fourth grade. The other says that there is no evidence that one actually causes the other. With such conflicting results, what should we as parents believe?

Parents should remember that, for the most part, research is a process and not a destination. No single study is definitive (red wine is wine is wine is good...) and, because of the complexity of people's lives, it's almost impossible to determine causal relationships in areas like media use and development.

I would say that instead of reading transient research coverage, parents' time would be far better spent reading other parents' reviews of media content -- TV shows, websites, mobile apps, games -- to seek out and preview what might be right for their children's age, developmental stage, needs, interests and abilities.

Did either of the studies consider the quality of the TV programs the kids were watching or whether parents were interacting with the kids during the program? Or were they based solely on time spent watching?

The Montreal/Michigan study did not take content into account at all. The Oklahoma State study (I think this got mistakenly portrayed as Canadian because most of the coverage of it was in Vancouver and Edmonton newspapers!) gave attention to content, discussing the proliferation of platform and programming options for kids and how this changes research assumptions and underpinnings. In the end, however, it looked primarily at time spent with television.

Beyond the obvious reasons why content matters (see my comment below about carrots vs. cupcakes), I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a strong correlation between screen time given to educational programming and parental involvement in children's media habits.

Did the researchers consider the possible impact of such factors as home life or family situation?

Both studies considered an array of societal and family factors. Teasing out these factors was at the core of the Oklahoma State study, which looked specifically for family, parental and child factors that may confound effects attributed to TV.

The Michigan/Montreal study did, as most studies do, try to weed out other economic, social and other factors; however, here's a key sentence from that study: "Preexisting maternal or familial factors predicted television exposure and were consistently related to most of the dependent variables,making them, in addition to sex, essential as controls." To me, this says that the amount of screen time allowed a child doesn't exist in a vacuum; it is related to family needs (if you live in an unsafe neighborhood, TV may be the safest option; if a family is dysfunctional, the child may end up spending more time alone with the screen; if parents are working two jobs trying to make ends meet, they may not be able to afford quality child care). It's easy to see how, in all these cases, the time spend with media is a symptom as is later struggle, instead of the cause.

How would you think the media has done at reporting the results of these studies? Are there a few tips you can share that would help parents read media reports more critically?

Unfortunately, planes that land safely aren't news. "TV makes your kids dumb" is a much more compelling headline than "A limited amount of carefully-chosen programming can contribute to early learning, especially with parental co-viewing." Note that the "TV is harmful" article got far more press play than the "it's not TV; it's parental engagement" story.

I have been distressed that media often print the press release, and don't delve into weaknesses of the study. Some things for parents to watch for in interpreting research.

-Was the sample size large or small -- research on a limited group may suggest direction for further study, but is hard to generalize to the population.
Was the study based on an observable behavior or on parental recollections or estimates.

-Did the study find "correlation" or "causation" -- almost 100% of serial killers drank milk as children (correlation); however, milk drinking does not lead to murder (causation).

-Did the study take content into account -- carrots and cupcakes both count as food intake, but wouldn't have the same result as a dietary staple.

-Did the research factor in environmental elements like socio-economic status, parental education, parental co-viewing and overall involvement with the child, and so on -- what the child brings to the television is at least equal to what the child takes away. One area where this is particularly salient is studies linking screen time and later ADHD -- perhaps parents of toddlers who show patterns suggesting ADHD allow more TV because it calms or focuses the child?

Every child's life is unique. This is what makes it virtually impossible to tease apart the factors in success or struggle later in life, and what guides my pragmatic belief that parents -- with best intentions -- develop practices that work for their lives.

The Oklahoma State study that found turning off the TV didn't affect learning unless parents also got involved in their kids' lives, is for the most part quite readable and a good discussion of strengths and weaknesses of previous studies. I also highly recommend Lisa Guernsey's book, "Into the Minds of Babes" as a guilt-free, informative parenting and media overview.

One last thought on journalistic coverage, and public reading, of research: it's not just media-related studies. I think we all need to become more research-literate, to be able to read critically through coverage of opinion polling and scientific studies.

The reality is that most preschoolers I know are going to watch TV, particularly when they have older brothers and sisters as is the case in my house. What advice can you give parents like me to insure that their kids' TV viewing experience is good and positive for everyone?

When it comes to food, I'm a fan of Michael Pollan's mantra, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." I'll shamelessly steal it for children and media use: "Allow media. Not too much. Mostly educational." Don't use screen time as the default activity, but pick programs (and games or websites or mobile apps) and set guidelines on when and how much.

Just as I (probably you, too) sometimes want to watch a thoughtful documentary and sometimes want to watch "Glee," kids want and deserve fun time. If they have a favorite TV show or game that is not explicitly designed for learning (everything is educational - the question is what it's teaching), that's just fine!

I'm also a strong believer that you don't have to like everything your children watch, but you should respect it. If your child finds a program or game that is in conflict with your family's values, then sit down and explain why you choose not to allow it.

Mediating between younger and older siblings is difficult. The older ones may be ready for stories or content that are beyond the youngest. That's when a VCR or DVR (Tivo) comes in very handy -- help your older kids feel special by making viewing time just for them when the younger ones are napping or playing elsewhere.

When David isn't leading a roundtable discussion on what proposals, policies or practices concerning children's media might emerge during the Obama Administration, chances are you will find him running somewhere, anywhere. He's probably getting ready for his 15th marathon.

Be sure to check out our own guide and information here on to help you become informed about the impact of television on the young children in your house.

What do think about young children and television? What rules, guidelines or practices do you follow at your house?


Corinne writes...

I am a mother of 5 and do put time restraints on the amount of television the kids watch, but more than that- the quality! I'm using PBS as an educational tool. I watch with my kids. We talk during the program about related issues and most importantly we are spending quality time with each other :) Of course there are times when the older kids will want to watch more t.v. then recommended and That's ok sometimes too. They're watching safe programming that we've approved as parents, they are safe, well educated and responsible. I love watching shows with my kids. We talk more than watch and we're together :)

benek writes...

They're watching safe programming that we've approved as parents, they are safe, well educated and responsible. I love watching shows with my

Mooooooooom writes...

One of the unexpected benefits of the Tivo/DVR is how easily parents can control the content their children watch. We always have an Arthur episode available anytime for the kids to watch, so we don't channel surf. Once the program is over, the screen pauses, and the kids automatically turn the TV off. And when my eldest son wanted to watch a show with commercials, Dad taught him how to fast-forward through the ads, bypassing a whole lot of messages (and decreasing the amount of "I want that!"). Tivo/DVR-- gotta love it.

Laurrel writes...

My 3 sons are PBS kids:) I am very proud of that. My 18yr old watched untill he got too old, but credits his love of reading to PBS and ME of course for reading to him a lot. My 7yr old is in 1st grage and is currently testing 4th grade reading/comprehension level:)and he loves both watching PBS and playing on My 1yr old has only PBS on at times during the day and will grow up surrounded by books as well. If I listened to what these "Studies" told me I would contantly think of myself as a bad parent, but I choose to observe my children and consider myself a good Mother.

Laurrel writes...

My 3 sons are PBS kids:) I am very proud of that. My 18yr old watched untill he got too old, but credits his love of reading to PBS and ME of course for reading to him a lot. My 7yr old is in 1st grage and is currently testing 4th grade reading/comprehension level:)and he loves both watching PBS and playing on My 1yr old has only PBS on at times during the day and will grow up surrounded by books as well. If I listened to what these "Studies" told me I would contantly think of myself as a bad parent, but I choose to observe my children and consider myself a good Mother.

Brandi writes...

My daughter is 2 1/2 and incredibly advanced in her numbers, letters, shapes and etc. She uses full sentences and understands complex ideas. I let her watch more T.V. than 'experts' suggest, but am vigilant about What she watches. I'm grateful for PBS, Nick Jr. and the other channels that have shows like "Little Einsteins," and "Wonder Pets." I thing quality is extremely important and quantity--not so much.

Elizabeth writes...

Great reading, thank you for providing this interview!

I had the fortune to meet Lisa Guernsey, the author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five a few years ago, and I highly recommend her book as a great resource for helping to sort through study after study on this issue. She presents a lot of information in a way that is accessible for parents in a most guilt-free way.

Wendy "MobiMom" writes...

How smart you are to acknowledge studies are not created all the same. Criteria such as content, environmental factors, etc. all influence the findings of studies, so it's not always black and white. Kind of like life! My husband is attending Sandbox Summit this week - it'll be interesting what the experts in child development/media/child play have to say about this topic. Let's face it...we live in America - we have televisions - it's much better to choose programs wisely, since hardly any of us actually just 'turn it off'. Thanks for this insightful interview!

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