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Baby TV: more harm than good?
Letting infants watch TV can do more harm than good says wide-ranging international review...
Baby TV: more harm than good?
A leading child expert is warning parents to limit the amount of television children watch before the age of 2, after an extensive review showed that it can do more harm than good to their ongoing development.
Supernanny expert Professor Dimitri A Christakis, from the Seattle Children's Research Institute and the University of Washington, also has expressed considerable concerns about DVDs aimed at infants that claim to be beneficial, despite a lack of scientific evidence. And he points out that France has already taken the matter so seriously that in summer 2008 its government introduced tough new rules to protect the health and development of children under 3 from the adverse effects of TV.
Toddlers hooked on TV
Professor Christakis' extensive review looked at 78 studies published over the last 25 years and reiterates the findings of numerous studies he has carried out with colleagues into this specialist area. He points out that as many as nine in 10 under-2s watch TV regularly, despite ongoing warnings, and some spend as much as 40% of their waking hours in front of a TV.
"No studies to date have demonstrated benefits associated with early infant TV viewing," says Professor Christakis, whose review looked at the effect that TV has on children's language, cognitive skills and attentional capacity, as well as areas for future research.
"The weight of existing evidence suggests the potential for harm and I believe that parents should exercise due caution in exposing infants to excessive media. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages TV viewing in the first two years of life, but only 6% of parents are aware of this advice despite ongoing publicity."
Professor Christakis' review found:
Many parents think TV is educational29% of parents who took part in a survey of 1,000 American families published in 2007 said they let their infants watch TV because they thought it was 'good for their brains'. But claims made by manufacturers are not substantiated by peer-reviewed medical papers and industry studies.
TV can delay language developmentWatching TV programs or DVDs aimed at infants can actually delay language development, according to a number of studies. For example, a 2008 Thai study published in Acta Paediatrica found that if children under 12 months watched TV for more than two hours a day they were six times more likely to have delayed language skills. Another study found that children who watched baby DVDs between seven and 16 months knew fewer words than children who did not.
Children learn better from us Infants as young as 14 months will imitate what they see on a TV screen, but they learn better from live presentations. For example, one study found that children learnt Mandarin Chinese better from a native speaker than they did from a video of the same speaker.
TV is associated with attention, reading and memory deficits A study of 1,300 children conducted by the author and colleagues in 2004 found a modest association between TV viewing before the age of 3 and attention problems at the age of 7, after a wide range of other factors were ruled out. In another study, the author and colleagues looked at the effects of early TV viewing on cognitive development at school age. They found that children who had watched a lot of TV in their early years did not perform as well when they underwent tests to check their reading and memory skills.
Parents use it as time off More than one parent in five who took part in another study said that they got their infants to watch TV when they needed time to themselves. This, says the author, is an understandable and realistic need, but not one that should be actively promoted.
Why TV is bad for kids
Why does TV have such a negative effect on children of this age? "We believe that one reason is the fact that it exposes children to flashing lights, scene changes, quick edits and auditory cuts which may be over stimulating to developing brains," says Professor Christakis. "TV also replaces other more important and appropriate activities like playing or interacting with parents."
There have been concerns about infants viewing TV for the last four decades but it has only been in recent years that studies have provided the data to back up those concerns.
"The explosion in infant TV viewing and the potential risks associated with it raise several important policy implications," concludes Professor Christakis. "First and foremost, the lack of regulation related to claims made by people promoting programs and DVDs aimed at infants is problematic. Educational claims should, and can, be based on scientific data. Despite this, the names of the products and the testimonials they use often convince parents that TV viewing has a positive impact on their infants.
"Secondly, parents need to be better informed about what activities really do promote healthy development in young children. This may provide some defense against the aggressive marketing techniques being employed.
"Last, but not least, more resources need to be made available to fund critical research related to the effects of media on young children."
How to get the best from baby TV
Supernanny expert Stephen Gass reckons some TV can help babies learn - as long as you use it right. Follow his tips...
Making TV work for your baby...
Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending no TV for under-2s, its own figures show that 70% of them watch some TV and other studies suggest that a quarter of them have TVs in their rooms. Let's face it: a no-TV policy for kids just isn't realistic - but making it work for our kids, instead of against them, is...
1 Keep it simple
Select programs that have simple stories or structures and won't overwhelm young children with auditory or visual features.
2 Keep it real
Kids under 2 are just beginning to figure out how the world works and they work in that world. What's on the screen, if anything, should reflect their world and what they're trying to accomplish - not function as video flash cards.
When you're choosing programs to watch, do the mom-test: if what's on the screen doesn't make sense to you it won't make sense to your baby
3 Be wary of big promises
Babies aren't going to learn advanced symbol systems such as the alphabet and numbers, or complex skill sets such as reading or computational mathematics, simply by looking at a screen.
4 Get involved
Co-view - watch and narrate along, talk and interact with your child. Look for your child's level of engagement: does she smile, laugh, point, gesture, imitate or verbalize as she watches? Watch for those moments and talk with your baby about what you observe. If your child isn't noticeably engaged switch off the TV.
5 Limit screen time
This is a quality-versus-quantity debate. Screen time used in moderation can have a positive effect on children's learning but the reality is that babies, in general, are social learners. They get a lot of stimulation from a lot of very different stimuli: people, pets, books, music, toys, boxes, keys, your glasses, your hair, your clothing, pots, pans, doors... and videos. Nevertheless, they need you, their first teacher (and favorite toy!) to help them make sense of the world and build knowledge and skills. If moderate co-viewing of appropriate content results in babies and parents smiling, laughing, talking, singing, dancing, and playing, before, during or after viewing, isn't that, after all, exactly what the doctor ordered?