Young Children and Television

Where does the mind go when the eyes watch tv?

Photograph of tv dumped in desert, by Pablo Gonzalez Vargas (at

  • 90% of 2-year-olds watch 1.5 hours of television daily

Frederick Zimmerman and colleagues Christakis and Meltzoff did a telephone survey of 1009 parents (in Minnesota and Washington) of children aged 2 to 24 months. And they found some disturbing facts:

By 3 months of age, about 40% of children regularly watched television, DVDs, or videos. By 24 months, this proportion rose to 90%. The median age at which regular media exposure was introduced was 9 months. Among those who watched, the average viewing time per day rose from 1 hour per day for children younger than 12 months to more than 1.5 hours per day by 24 months. Parents watched with their children more than half of the time. Parents gave education, entertainment, and babysitting as major reasons for media exposure in their children younger than 2 years. [“Television and DVD/Video Viewing in Children Younger Than 2 Years,” published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, May 2007]

What’s so disturbing about this?

  • Academic performance?

Scientists as well as the media reporting on their findings are usually interested in the effects of so much television on intellectual (read academic) performance. For instance, in 2005, Zimmerman and Christakis studied children who before age 3 watched an average of 2.2 hours of television per day, and children who at ages 3 to 5 watched a daily average of 3.3 hours. Their conclusion was that

There are modest adverse effects of television viewing before age 3 years on the subsequent cognitive development of children. These results suggest that greater adherence to the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines that children younger than 2 years not watch television is warranted. [“Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes. A Longitudinal Analysis of National Data,” published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, July 2005]

Mmmm: “modest averse effects”. That won’t persuade the stressed-out parent who relies on television as a babysitter or a soother.

In an interview with Newsweek, Zimmerman is more forceful and reticent at the same time:

It is not clear-cut, but it is very suggestive, that excessive viewing, more than 30 to 60 minutes a day before 3 years of age, is associated with a lot or problems later on, such as obesity, poor cognitive development, poor attention control and aggressive behavior. Much more research needs to be done in these areas, though, before we have a crystal-clear picture of these effects.

  • Advertising

The reasons for this are simple. Intellectual (read, again, academic) performance is “easily” measured. And the traditional media would rather not put the spotlight on certain other effects of television, effects that are beneficial to them. Advertising, for instance.

As Aaron (father of Keaton) writes:

Before our children have even fully functional use of our language, we are giving them over to others, including advertising agencies and their corporate sponsors, to teach them what those people and companies would like them to know.

Spot on!

  • Mindfulness

I have seen this in Amie. She was never the least bit interested in television. We played Baby Einstein for her when she was 6 months old, and after the third time she had lost interest. I was relieved by that, because whatever “attention” she did pay to the program seemed more enforced than enthusiastic. How could she not look at where that horrendous music (Baby Beethoven) was coming from? So I put “attention” between quotes, because it was less awareness than shielding!

I single out Baby Einstein because we tried it and because I detest the musical renditions. But any program that is not, say, Sixty Minutes, is detrimental to real attention. Attention means awareness, or even better: mindfulness. One isn’t mindfull of Friends, or even Seinfeld, one simply undergoes it. As such, people with attention deficit disorder have no trouble paying “attention” for three hours to a fastpaced movie or computergame. And however much the Baby Einstein Company et. al. would like us to believe it, there has been no proof that watching their products enhance attention, let alone minds.

  • Noisy ads

One exception to Amie’s total disregard to television was one particular ad. She couldn’t care less about the Red Sox game, but when that Pepsi ad with Jimmy Fallon came on, she would turn, stare for a second, and dance. Two minutes later it was back to business as usual.

We catered to her dancing needs much better by putting on cds, and she continued to ignore the tv, until a month ago. I’ve written that she has become a lot more sensitive to sound, especially as the sign of something threatening (a loud machine, a car honking). She still ignores the programs, but the ads have suddenly become a lot more “interesting”.

I don’t precisely know what “interesting” means here. I would like think she is merely checking out the sudden noise (*) as a potential threat. But then she keeps on staring at it. She is sucked in, becomes passive, mindless.

(*) Ads may not be more “voluminous” than other television content objectively, but they are louder subjectively, thanks to the audio technicians tricks that make the track sound fuller, more dynamic. The same goes for the visual density of an ad: the images are sharper, flashier, more colorful. Sooner or later also that aspect will want to kidnap her.

  • Where does the mind go when the eyes watch tv?

You can’t measure “mindful” and “mindless”: it is too big, too wondeful. A child’s mind is so much more than just IQ or reading ability. It is identity, wholesomeness, confidence, autonomy, spirituality, responsibility, kindness and affection.

Children this young are still laboriously and courageously building these qualities. So they are even more defenseless against the assault of television than us adults (who freely and stupidly give up these wonderful things as we accept human characters being blown and beaten to pieces). In the face of such auditory, visual, and mindless violence, the small seeds of these qualities retreat. What is left is a vacuum easily occupied by corporations and companies.

I can easily entertain the opinion that the kind of television of the last twenty years has influenced the teens and early twentiers who were raised on it, from infancy, and in particular their ability to cope with aggression and aggressive behavior. If the ubiquitous babysitter habitually beats someone up, right in front of the child and with impunity… And if that babysitter cheats on the spouse, drives an SUV, lives in a McMansion and goes shopping for shoes everything she feels depressed…

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