TV for Tots?

Experts talk about the pros and cons of letting very young children watch TV.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
6 min read

Jack Sid put his hands behind his head and sat down on his couch to watch a little television after a hard day at … Mommy and Me.

Jack Sid is 2 years old and one of a growing number of toddlers who spend some downtime in front of the tube. According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of children aged 6 months to 6 years watch TV daily. Among the youngest children – those less than 2 -- more than four in 10 (43%) watch TV daily.

So it's no wonder that a new baby-targeted cable channel called BabyFirstTV, as well as all those infant-friendly educational DVDs, is getting a lot of buzz. That's not to say this development doesn't have its share of critics. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), for one, does not recommend television for children aged 2 or younger. For older children, the AAP recommends no more than one to two hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs.

Others, however, point out that such black and white boundaries are merely shooting the messenger and that television can be a helpful medium for encouraging important interactions between parents and children.

"Our major concern is that children under 2 have brains that are actively developing physically and are not fully formed and [development] seems to be dependent on normal interactions," explains Daniel Broughton, MD, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Just sitting and watching TV may be harmful for [development]."

Some research does link early TV viewing with attention problems, says Ken Haller, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at St. Louis University School of Medicine. "Kids are probably better off watching less TV the younger they are," he says, adding that each hour of TV at ages 1 and 3 increases the risk of attention problems at age 7 by 10%.

"There is no research showing TV watching is beneficial in children under 2," Broughton adds. "There are many other ways to interact with children that are excellent and have been around for centuries."

Parents should read and talk to their children and play with toys with them, Broughton says. "You don't need a TV to interact. Just spend time with your kids."

But, "children are watching TV," stresses Edward McCabe, MD, physician-in-chief for the Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA, and president of the American Pediatrics Society. "It's the content that's important, not the medium, and I hope that the AAP will reconsider their position after they have had a chance to see BabyFirstTV," says McCabe. He is also a member of the AAP as well as the BabyFirstTV advisory board.

"As important as I think it is to read to children, I don't feel that all books are appropriate to read to a 12-month-old, and that's how I interpret TV for those under 2," adds McCabe.

A 24/7 channel available for purchase on DirecTV since May 2006, BabyFirstTV is designed specifically for children under the age of 3. Programs include parental subtitles to help parents interact with their kids while watching by providing questions to ask about the content.

"One of the things I like about BabyFirstTV is that it helps parents read to children," McCabe says.

Other BabyFirstTV programs teach sign language to infants. "Our research has shown that in three weeks, babies are learning how to sign," says Sharon Rechter, executive vice president of business development and marketing, and one of BabyFirstTV's founders. "We can see that babies are learning. I will not claim this will make your baby smarter, but we are providing high-quality programming that has been developed by leading experts," she says.

"We are turning a passive experience into an active experience that babies and parents can utilize together," she explains.

Other shows tackle the obesityobesity epidemic by targeting infants and their parents. "We will have a parent talk show with recipes, and on the children's side our goal is make vegetables and fruit cool for children under 3. We will use animated veggies and make them fun," she says.

But not even Rechter is encouraging carte blanche TV viewing for toddlers. She is quick to point out that while TV can be part of a healthy child's development, it's not the only ingredient. "Lettuce is very healthy, but you will die if you only eat lettuce," she says.

"There is so much to be learned from TV, if used appropriately," says Nicole Sachs, co-founder and managing partner of tinyguides, LLC. The Bedford, N.Y.-based company designs educational DVDs intended to help parents get their children past childhood milestones such as a preschooler's first day of school or a toddler's trip to the doctor.

"TV can make kids feel safe. It can teach them that there are other kids who are ‘just like them,'" Sachs says. "If parents do not abuse television and select quality programming, TV can be a very valuable educational tool for children."

"It is a great jumping-off point for parents to discuss issues with their kids and relate them to something they've watched together," she tells WebMD.

"We are taking the experiences that kids learn so naturally from -- playground interaction, school peer group influence, sibling communication -- and literally channeling them into a positive modeling experience for kids at home," Sachs adds.

From the days of Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and Captain Kangaroo, there has always been TV for tots; so what's all the excitement about?

"Sesame Street was criticized in the 1970s by individuals who said there is too much action and we will never have kids with long attention spans because of all the shifting from one story to another," McCabe points out. "There are some people who would argue that Sesame Street is very good at helping kids with the alphabet and numbers."

The bottom line is that "whenever there is something new," McCabe says, there is, "a group of people who are very wary."

Sachs adds that today "there is just more variety, and within that variety there have been some great breakthroughs" -- such as the enhanced interaction that can turn a TV into an electronic box for learning.

TV for toddlers often gets a bad rap because mass media programming for children uses quick cartoon images that keep kids mesmerized, but doesn't require them to show any real attention span, Sachs says.

Exactly how TV viewing can cause attention problems is not fully understood, Haller says. "It is posited that when children are very young, their brains are still getting wired about how the world looks and sounds.

"TV comprises high impact images that are discontinued from one instance to another. Boom, you are in France! Boom, you are in England!" Haller says. "People move from place to place seemingly by magic and the young brain may become wired to expect novelty, bright colors, and changes in the environment that happen rapidly -- which can lead to problems being able to sit, and pay attention, and focus."

But the issue is not black and white to Haller. "One of the good things is that if you put kids in front of the TV, sit and watch with them, you can talk to kids about what they are seeing and you can watch how they are interacting with it.

"The TV should not be an electronic babysitter," he says.

So what's a parent to do?

"I would say that if you are going to put a kid in front of a TV set, BabyFirstTV is better than MTV, CNN, ESPN, or even a major network," says Haller.