Saturday, March 24, 2012


Disclaimer: this post is probably a bit more strident than my usual posts. In case you're wondering: yes, I am stressed about finding new childcare for Kermit, and yes, I am pissed off about the quality of care that I see around me. And yes, I am unbelievably tired of people dismissing science because it isn't convenient. I could write this same basic post about climate change. I could write it about evolution. I could write it about vaccines. But instead, I'm writing it about television for toddlers. Just because it's the issue that's pissing me off this week.

FACT: The American Association of Pediatrics recommends no television whatsoever for children under the age of two.

FACT: Studies have shown that television is an extremely ineffective teaching tool for very young children. Anything they learn from a television show, they learn much more rapidly and deeply from live interactions with an actual person in the real world.

FACT: Studies have shown that lots of television viewing by children under age two slows down the acquisition of language. Even when it is only on "in the background." Even when the child "doesn't seem to be watching." (Additional studies show that very young children who appear absorbed in playing with toys while a television is on in the background still look at the television, on average, every 20 seconds).

FACT: Additional studies have noted a correlation between television watching among very young children and later problems with attention. A correlation between television watching among very young children and increased childhood obesity. A correlation between television watching among very young children and physical changes in how the brain develops. Some of these effects might be related to the type of television show, or the total time spent watching; these types of variables need further study. What is known, definitively, is that these correlations are real and observable.

FACT: Despite what you might read in the comments sections of many articles outlining the AAP recommendations or discussing the above studies, it is actually possible not to show your toddler any television shows. Yes, even if you also have an older child. Is it difficult? Maybe. But it is possible. No physical laws of the universe need to be violated in order for a child to reach the age of two without having seen Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer.

FACT: "My kid watched tons of television and still does well in school" does not disprove these studies. "I know someone who watched tons of television and was speaking in full sentences by 9 months of age" does not disprove these studies. "Back in my day, our television was on for 16 hours a day and I still turned out fine" does not disprove these studies. Anecdotes and scientifically rigorous data are not the same thing. They do not cancel each other out.

Having said that...

OPINION: If you're home with your child and you're trying to cook dinner or do some other household chore, you might sometimes rely on 30 minutes of Sesame Street to peacefully occupy your child while you work. This reliance on television as distraction tool can ease the challenges of being a busy parent. I don't blame you at all. Anyone who judges you for 30 minutes of PBS is an idiot. Those thirty minutes of Sesame Street will not keep your child out of Harvard. Your daily interactions with the child (reading books, going to the zoo, building with blocks, exploring the park) are going to completely dwarf the effects of thirty minutes a day of Elmo. But let's be clear: those thirty minutes also won't make your child smarter, even if it is "educational" television. Use the television for a moment of peace if you want to, but do not kid yourself that it is doing your child any good. It's not what I do, but to each his own.

OPINION: I'm willing to give that "out" to busy parents. Parents are always multi-tasking between two jobs: taking care of the child and running a household. And sometimes the "running the household" job requires that you back-off from the "taking care of the child" job for a minute or two. You're a stay-at-home mom and you need to move a load of laundry and you need your hands free to do it and the laundry room is hazardous for your child? Go ahead and use the television if you want to. You're a working dad and you need to cook dinner for your family when you get home and it is not safe to hold your one-year-old while cutting up and sauteeing raw chicken? Go ahead and use the television if you want to. You're tired at the end of the day and you don't have the energy to play with trains for the millionth time today and instead you want to curl up on the couch with your child and watch a Disney movie with him as a special treat? Totally reasonable thing to do on occasion. Your child, your choice.

OPINION: I am far far less forgiving if you are a child care provider. If you run a day care, your only job during business hours is to take care of the children. Using television to do your job for you is laziness, pure and simple. DO NOT give me some bullshit about how it is educational. DO NOT explain to me that the children "don't really pay attention to it anyway" because honestly, that just makes you look even dumber, because if you think the children aren't watching it, why the hell is it on? DO NOT argue with me about the wisdom of the AAP's recommendations, because you are not in any way qualified to be making the decision to ignore the scientifically-based advice of a medical association, particularly for other people's children. DO NOT attempt to make me feel like the weirdo for being informed and insistent about this issue. And most of all, DO NOT LIE TO ME ABOUT IT. Do you turn on the television? Occasionally. How often? Sometimes. For how long? A little while. Giving answers like these make you sound like you're hiding something, and it just makes me hate you even more for wasting my time.

This post dedicated to the many daycares that we visited that were such idiots on the issue of television that they made our decision not to entrust them with Kermit's care so much easier. Like the daycare with the 40" television dominating the playroom where the children spend most of their day. And the daycare provider who casually told me that they turn on the television "hardly at all; just for an hour in the morning, and then two hours more in the afternoon." And the daycare provider who told me that there might be something wrong with my child if he got "too distracted" by a television that was just on "in the background" while he was "supposed to be playing," because she couldn't fathom any other reason why I would object to the television being on in the first place. And the daycare provider who said, without a hint of sarcasm, "How do you expect your child to learn the alphabet if you won't show him Sesame Street?"


  1. I would be super-extra-annoyed with daycares that think TV is an adequate child-minder. I don't think Bug watched any TV when he was less than two.

    We do sometimes let Bug watch some Dinosaur Train or Super Why so I can make dinner without his 'help'. But I am under no illusion that it is educational; I just have only so many hands at once. :)

  2. Finding a good daycare is so stressful. Wishing you much luck with the process.

    At our current daycare I really appreciated how up front our provider was about the TV. No TV before 5 pm, you leave your kid after 5 pm there's a good chance they'll be glassy-eyed in front of the TV because she is done for the day at 5 (and really, I get that. The woman gets up and cooks a hot lunch every morning before 7 am). However, recently the fusspot has been discussing a good deal more TV than I'd like and my suspicion is that our daycare provider is using it to allow her to rock the baby to sleep. Here's where I'm totally torn: encourage a less-time intensive naptime routine for baby to eliminate TV, or accept toddler-TV as a neccessary evil given that the baby is really hard to put down? (And my guess is that some daycare providers are using the TV to give them time to change diapers and prep lunch, etc). It's not that I mind her "wasting" 20 minutes of time, but I am genuinely a bit bothered by the messages in many TV shows today (you know, toddlers in bikinis saving the world, SO much weird gender stuff, way too much violence in cartoons - oh, I sound like a grumpy grandma) and the TV is really addictive such that the fusspot is always grumpy when we turn it off and sometimes I wonder if it doesn't also decrease her ability to play quietly on her own for 20 minutes (which she has to do at home when I put the baby down since we have no TV after all). Wondering your thoughts on the downsides to very limited TV vs. no TV if you write about this again.

  3. Probably the saddest thing I've seen was a daycare with a pile of babies in bouncy chairs in front of a TV in a dimly lit room. That made me understand why that daycare was only half the price of the much nicer daycare that our baby goes to now.
    It did make me sad about the babies from people that could only afford the cheaper daycare...

  4. YES. Now write a post on those your baby can read programs. Gah!


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