Quality vs. Quantity: TV Guidelines for Kids

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

5 min read

Once the thrill of building snowmen has worn off, children in colder climates tend to spend the winter months indoors. That can mean more television time than usual -- a source of concern among some child development experts who wonder about the impact on impressionable young minds.

"We don't have living-color pictures of young children's brains watching television," says educational psychologist Jane M. Healy, PhD. "What we do have is a huge history and body of research showing us that anything a child does for an extended period of time will make changes in the brain."

What kinds of changes? That may depend on what your child is watching. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, research shows "a very strong link" between exposure to violent television programs, including cartoons, and aggressive behavior in children. But how about nonviolent children's programs?

Healy, who is the author of Your Child's Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence, tells WebMD even well-respected kids programs use fast-paced camera moves, color splashes, and special effects to captivate young viewers. "Children's programs have a lot of loud noises and silly sounds and funny-sounding voices designed to attract children's attention," she says. The result is that children who watch too much TV "lack experience in shifting and maintaining their own attention because the television is directing them."

A study by researchers at the University of Washington Child Health Institute supports the idea of a connection between TV viewing and attention problems. According to the researchers, a 3-year-old who watches two hours of TV per day is 20% more likely to have attention problems at age 7 than a child who watches no television. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

"Most TV programs now require very short attention spans," says American Academy of Pediatrics spokeswoman Susan Buttross, MD. "In a classroom setting, you need to have sustained attention for a prolonged period of time. The more you're used to having something fast and furious going by you, the harder the classroom setting gets."

But don't unplug your TV just yet. Other studies show preschoolers who watch high-quality educational television programs tend to score better on reading and math tests. "Children who are watching good programs do make gains, both cognitively and socially," says Dorothy Singer, EdD, co-director of Yale University's Family Television Research and Consultation Center.

Singer tells WebMD that television becomes a problem when parents give their kids too much control over what and how much they watch. With the average American child watching about four hours of TV per day, she says kids are missing out on real life experiences. "It's taking time away from socializing with other children, from beginning to read, from exploring the neighborhood, from exercising and riding a bicycle."

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."

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."