The television has many names –  TV, the telly, the box, the  electric “babysitter”… While the last one is usually said in jest, the sad fact is there is more truth to it today than there should be.  In decades past and when I was growing up, whether and how much to let babies watch TV wasn’t much of an issue as we didn’t have 24/7 TV and for baby boomers, TV was relatively new when they were born and were young children, and when they had children, programming was limited to a handful of cartoons and programmes specifically designed for kids.

But today is an entirely different story. Today, not only are there the standbys like Sesame Street and after school cartoons, but there are entire channels geared towards kids that provide a non-stop stream of programming. Add to that the “educational” DVDs for infants and the media exposure through computers and iPads, parents and infants are overwhelmed with media.

But is that a good thing?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has warned that exposing infants and toddlers to television does not improve their language and visual motor skills.  In it they cite dozens upon dozens of studies that all say the same thing: television and babies don’t mix.

In an article entitled “’Educational TV’ for Babies? It Doesn’t Exist” Dr. Ari Brown, the lead author of the AAP’s policy statement said that there is a presumption among parents that television has educational benefits, but for children under 2 that just isn’t true. The AAP says a startling 90% of parents allow their children to watch some form of electronic media, and more shocking, almost 1/3 of parents say their children have a television in their bedrooms by age 3.

While many parents use the television as a distraction for their babies so they can get housework done, make dinner, or get ready for work, they have been largely duped by programmes and DVDs dubbed as “educational.”

The truth is that the research has found that while there can be an educational benefit to high-quality TV programs for children over the age of 2, younger children is not the same.

Children under the age of 2 do not benefit because they are at different cognitive levels.  The AAP cites 2 studies in which children under the age of 2 who watched “Sesame Street” displayed negative effects on language development despite the fact that the programme is known for having positive educational benefits for older children.

In fact, there have been numerous studies that show that young children learn better from people than from television.  Barr & Hayne, in their study “Developmental changes in imitation from television during infancy” showed that children under 2 years learned better and were able to replicate or imitate live people better than they could people they observed on television.  And language development studies have long shown that babies acquire more language from real people. Further, learning comes from play and problem solving. A child who is staring at a television isn’t learning through these crucial experiences.

Even “secondhand” television – the television you watch that your child just happens to be in the room for – is detrimental up until age 2.  While the AAP says that the average child under 2 is exposed to 1-2 hours of television directly every day, many families reported having the television is on for an 6 hours a day which becomes background noise for the baby.

There are a few things the AAP is concerned with in regards to this indirect exposure. Given that the first 2 years are the prime time for the rapid acquisition of language and are crucial to learning and refining basic motor skills, developmental delays can occur because the parent is watching the television and not interacting with the child.

Language development in children come from the amount of exposure they have to language, and that’s direct interaction with real people. In a study published in The Achieves of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, researchers found when a parent is watching television, they are not interacting with the child and the resultant decrease in interaction, specifically speaking to a child, had negative effects on the child’s development. Read more in The Washington Times

The study concludes that heavy television viewing impairs language development in very young children.

Now as a former Deputy Head teacher who taught 45 Reception Class children aged 5 to read for many years I know the added value of watching a 15 minute fun TV programme about phonics and reading  as a complement to what I was doing in class.

As a Mum of two kids I know the value of a 15 minute Postman Pat video while I tidied up the mess in the kitchen but I had firm boundaries about what they watched and for how long they watched and also my kids were 4 and 6 and I still put boundaries round their “screenager” 24/7 media even though they are nearly adults !

My job is not to tell you what to do but get you ponder what’s right for you.

So what do you think?