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Quality vs. Quantity: TV Guidelines for Kids

How does the amount and quality of TV-watching affect your child's development?

When to Tune in or Turn Off

So how much TV is too much for your kids? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one or two hours per day of "quality screen time" for children aged 2 and older. Screen time refers to television, movies, video games, and surfing the Internet.

To make the most of TV time, parents should use a program guide to choose quality children's shows and watch with their children whenever possible, Singer says. She adds that parents should stick to the two-hour limit even when it's too cold or rainy to play outside. She suggests music, games, toys, books, art projects, and finger paints as rainy-day alternatives to TV.

As for children younger than 2, the Academy's recommendation is no television at all. Buttross, who heads the division of child development and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, says more research is needed on how TV affects this age group. "There is such rapid brain development going on during the first couple years of life. Language development is supposed to be rocketing from bare minimal cooing to sentences by the age of 2. Interactive learning is so important."

Singer agrees. "Children under 2 need to touch, feel, taste, smell, and explore their environment. Their major experience should be play and interaction with human beings. TV is not really adding anything to a child below the age of 2."

But developmental psychologist Deborah L. Linebarger, PhD, says it's premature to advise against all television for babies. Linebarger, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, tells WebMD, "There's not enough evidence to make a recommendation either way. To save parents' sanity, we should give them some cautions but go with the moderation approach."

Keeping an Eye on Content

In Linebarger's view, content is much more of a concern than quantity. Kids are better off watching moderate amounts of educational programming than even small amounts of shows with inappropriate content, she says. "It's not whether to let them watch. It's what you let them watch."

Linebarger's own research indicates a connection between certain educational TV programs and enhanced language skills in very young children. "We followed kids from 6 months of age to 2.5 years, tracking language development as measured by vocabulary and expressive language use. Depending on the show characteristics, the relationship to language development is positive or negative. At least for babies, they need a very linear narrative with a lot of repetition within the episode and very clear sequences and story patterns."

According to the study, which appears in the American Behavioral Scientist, watching Dora the Explorer, Blue's Clues, Arthur, Clifford, or Dragon Tales was associated with greater vocabularies and higher expressive language scores at 2.5 years old. But the study involved only 51 children, and Linebarger stresses that it's too soon to say whether the TV programs were responsible for the improved language skills. "I think this research highlights areas where television could be OK for young children, but it's imperative to choose appropriate television and use it in moderation."

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