Toddlers And TV
When the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that children younger than 18 months to 2 years old avoid watching TV and DVDs, and that children age 2 and older seriously cut back their screen time, a collective shudder went through households across the country. What would parents do without a little respite during the day to take a shower, unload the dishwasher or just take some "me time" while the kids were watching Big Bird?
After all, watching Sesame Street is a tradition most parents fondly remember from their own childhoods, when they were the ones mesmerized by Big Bird while their frazzled parents enjoyed an hour of peace. But a generation ago, all kids programming was educational, commercial-free and limited — once the program was over, there was nothing else kid-friendly on, so either the set went off or the kids wandered away.
Now, there are whole cable channels devoted to children's programming (a term that includes anything from cartoons to sitcoms), which show kid fare 24/7. Plus, they're usually riddled with product placements and advertisements (often for junk food), and have dubious educational value. And that’s just toddlers and TV! These days there are also entire DVD empires for the tiniest viewers of all — often with the claim that watching will make babies as young as 6 months smarter.
Whether a DVD or TV show has any educational value is unclear (though one study found that babies who watch learning DVDs don't learn words more quickly than babies who don't watch those videos). But the AAP does know that encouraging your toddler to learn independent play is way more beneficial than anything your sweetie will see on screen.
And what is becoming clear when it comes to toddlers and TV is that there are serious consequences to excessive screen time. Some research shows that too much TV is linked with childhood obesity, aggressive behavior, decreased intellectual and social development (including language development), lessened imagination and creativity and weaker family ties.
This doesn’t mean, though, that TV is completely off-limits. The AAP’s recommendation for toddlers and TV states that 1 hour of “quality programming” a day is okay for little ones age 2 to 5. And when you consider the magical power TV and DVDs have to quiet toddlers in nearly any situation (what mom hasn't given thanks for her minivan's DVD player?) at any time of day, rain or shine, their siren song is nearly impossible to resist. The trick is to learn how to keep screen time to a minimum while maximizing its educational component. To that end, check out these ways to make your toddler’s TV time shorter and smarter.
- Set limits in advance — and be disciplined about keeping them. It's so tempting, when your child is absorbed and you're accomplishing something, to let Dora turn into Bubble Guppies and then Peppa Pig. But remember to enforce your time limits. When the show is over, turn off the set — and ignore all protests from your stubborn toddler. Make the transition away from the TV easier by having a special activity planned for after the show is done. For those rare occasions when the TV rule needs to be broken (your toddler has the sniffles, for instance, and needs to spend time lying down quietly), explain that this is an exception to the rule, not the new norm.
- Reconsider full-length features. If you find you have a hard time sticking to time limits, be sure to choose TV shows or DVDs that are short (a half hour or so) as opposed to a 2-hour Disney extravaganza. Or, if you do want your toddler to enjoy a particular feature-length flick, set an alarm to go off a half hour after you turn on the movie, and show the movie only in installments. When the alarm goes off, promptly turn off the movie and say, “Tomorrow, we’ll see if Ariel gets her voice back!”
- Choose what your tot watches wisely. Preview shows or DVDs before letting your toddler see them to make sure they have an educational component, to see that they promote healthy values and to be certain they don’t have violent undertones (cartoons can be surprisingly violent!). Also a good idea: Choose programs that are free from commercials and product placements — like most shows on public television.
- Limit or eliminate your own viewing when your child is around. If you're watching TV and your toddler is in the room, he's watching too. And if you have the TV on as “background,” your toddler is soaking up hour after hour of TV a day — adult TV, replete with ads and confusing images — and you're not even getting any peace and quiet out of the deal! So save your own TV viewing for when the kids are asleep.
- Don’t use TV as a reward — or ban TV as a punishment. If you allow your toddler to watch TV only when he’s done something good, that will make TV far too appealing. Or conversely, don’t forbid your child from watching TV when he’s done something bad — when it comes to toddlers and TV, this will only make them want it more.
- Make TV time a joint activity. A great way to make TV more educational is to watch along with your toddler. If, for example, you want your little guy to see Winnie the Pooh because you loved it so much when you were a kid, sit down and watch with him! Make it interactive by singing and dancing along with the songs, and asking him questions about the story as you watch (“What is Pooh doing now?”). Later on you can talk about the show, play games that evoke it, read books and poems that feature Winnie and his friends — you get the idea.