Screen Separation Anxiety

Are You Exposing Your Baby to Secondhand TV?

Catching up on “The Bachelor” while you breastfeed or changing a diaper with “Dancing with the Stars” in the background could be called multi-tasking. But, not so fast, super-mom. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says, “Secondhand TV,” (their term for TV playing in the background) can harm development in babies younger than age two.

The information isn’t shocking. Pediatricians have been telling parents since 1999 the same no-TV-under-two advice. But despite this warning, the New York Times reports that approximately 90 percent of parents say their infants consume electronic media in some form. As a parent of two, I am guilty of occasionally failing the TV test myself. Because how realistic is it to never have the TV on – phone or iPad – near your baby for two whole years? It’s a constant battle at our house, with one older than three and a newborn, but it’s a fight that the AAP says is worth it. Studies have shown that even educational shows such as Sesame Street should be off limits. While these shows have been known to contribute to improved language and social skills in children older than two, the same programming for younger kids actually delays language skills. Evidence also suggests that screen viewing before age two has lasting negative effects on children’s reading skills, attention spans and short-term memory.

The fact is, there are no benefits from TV before two. The “educational” baby videos that portray pint-sized Picassos and mini-Mozarts seem too good to be true because they are. Doctors at The Institute for Infant Brain Development in Phoenix say that infant brain growth happens in direct response to external stimulation, in the context of real-world experiences. Which means that telling Junior about the laundry you’re folding is much more educational than any video engineered to boost his intellect. Researchers have actually found that very young children are much slower to imitate a task when they watch it on a screen than when they see it performed live.

But the AAP says the real problem lies not only with what babies are doing while they’re watching TV, but what they aren’t doing. Specifically, children are programmed to learn from interacting with other people. Whenever one party, child or parent, is watching TV, the exchange comes to a halt.  Just having the TV on in the background, even if “no one is watching it,” is enough to delay language development. Normally, a parent speaks about 940 words per hour when a baby is around. With the television on, that number falls by 770. To sum it up, fewer words means less learning.

Studies have also shown that babies who watch more TV are more likely to have problems paying attention at the age of seven. Video programming is constantly changing, constantly interesting and almost never forces a child to deal with anything more tedious than a commercial. As we all know, the real world is not so accommodating.

So what can we do to tune out the tube? The simple answer is to just turn it off. The AAP recommends parents employ other ways of stimulating children’s learning when they are busy doing what they have to do. For instance, instead of placing young children in front of a screen while you prepare dinner or do chores, have them nearby engaged in supervised play, such as playing with nested cups or pots and pans on the floor. Talk to them about what you’re doing. They also recommend that you don’t put a TV set in your child’s bedroom, and limit older children to two hours of screen time per day.

With all this in mind, it may be safe to say that a family movie night or quick cartoon once in a while isn’t going to damage your little darling, but, as with most things life, moderation is key.

Categories: Ages & Stages, Little Ones