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Your Toddler or Preschooler and TV

If you want a child who can spend long hours entertaining herself (which will afford you many breaks and make you the envy of all your friends with children); and if you want your child to have the best chance of reaching her educational potential, be able to listen and retain what she learns and need to spend less time doing homework, studying for tests, stressing about school in general; then don’t turn on the TV for the first 2 to 3 years. It is much easier than you imagine. But once you begin using TV, it’s harder. -Janet Lansbury

How much screen time should your Toddler or Preschooler have? Are you ready? In my opinion, no daily time on an ongoing basis.

Your Toddler or Preschooler and TV

Of course, screens are a terrific babysitter. If you have a new baby in the family, or you're trying to get some essential alone time with each of your kids, or if you're easing an airplane trip, it's my vote that screen time is totally worth the risk. But if you routinely use TV so you can get stuff done, you're actually shaping your child's brain so that he will be LESS able to entertain himself over time.

In my opinion, it's better to find a babysitter or a preschool program for a few hours a day. Risking your child's brain development is too high a price to pay for keeping him busy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is more open on this. Drawing from the research, they suggest that children under age 2 not watch any TV and that kids over age 2 be limited to an hour or at most two, daily, of quality programming.

That comes out to about ten hours per week. And yet, toddlers and preschoolers in the US watch an average of 32 hours of TV every week.

Why is this a problem?

TV changes brain development. Dr Dimitri Christakis will blow you away with this talk about brain development and the effects of TV. TV can sabotage kids as they learn to read, and keep them from becoming good students. Why? Click here.

Toddlers and preschoolers have other, very important developmental work to do. This is a huge amount of time spent on TV that should be spend on the things that are better for their brains - blocks, art, running around, engaging with other people. These activities teach kids self-regulation, and are the foundation for the next stages of learning. TV is addictive and this sets up a habit for life. Every child growing up today will have enough trouble with screen addiction without us setting their brain up to make it more likely.

If you're protesting this as an extreme position, consider it from another perspective. Would you let your child engage in any other daily activity likely to negatively impact the way his brain is developing, or damage her body?

TV and computer games stimulate your child's brain to develop differently, and many of those changes seem to have to do with shortening attention spans, reducing impulse control, and heightening aggression. There's increasing evidence that the more TV kids watch the more likely they are to have ADD and ADHD symptoms.

Young children's brains were designed to develop optimally by engaging with the physical world, and with the imagination--being told stories, for instance--rather than to be fed passive viewing that bypasses the need for imagination.

Toddlers and preschoolers may not look busy, but they have important developmental work to do. Fantasy play, building with blocks, artwork, social interaction with their peers and siblings, cooking with their parents, climbing, swinging, looking at books. These activities help your child's brain develop as it's designed to, giving her people skills and problem solving creativity, as well as the foundation for math and reasoning.

What about the forbidden fruit argument? If your policy is simply that you don't watch TV at your house, your child won't question it, any more than he would question your decision not to serve sodas. Kids who don't drink sodas while growing up don't usually develop a taste for them. And if you're concerned about your child feeling left out of what the other kids know, you can always change your policy when kids get older and peer pressure makes it "essential" for your middle schooler to catch the latest show. Because she's starting later, the likelihood of addiction is much less, because it doesn't impact brain

What about the computer? I know, it not only babysits, it teaches your child to read! And computers are certainly better than TV because they're interactive. But most experts recommend that you delay introducing the computer, or strictly limit young kids' time on it, because computer games are also designed to be addictive.

Regardless of how carefully you monitor your young child's screen time, you're changing brain development. You're also setting up addiction. By the time they're eight, if not well before, you won't know what they're seeing on TV, because they'll be changing the channel when you're out of the room. Better not to get a habit started, and meanwhile leave time for the child to develop the habit of reading. 

Does TV Teach Children to Hit?

There is no question that "violent" programming causes greater aggressiveness in children. We have solid evidence from hundreds of studies on the effects of children's TV viewing. Think your children aren't seeing violent programming? Think again. According to the University of Michigan's Health System:

Even in G-rated, animated movies and DVDs, violence is common—often as a way for the good characters to solve their problems. Every single U.S. animated feature film produced between 1937 and 1999 contained violence, and the amount of violence with intent to injure has increased over the years.Even "good guys" beating up "bad guys" gives a message that violence is normal and okay. Many children will try to be like their "good guy" heroes in their play.Repeated exposure to TV violence makes children less sensitive toward its effects on victims and the human suffering it causes. A University of Michigan researcher demonstrated that watching violent media can affect willingness to help others in need. Read about the study here: Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others.

A 15-year-long study by University of Michigan researchers found that the link between childhood TV-violence viewing and aggressive and violent behavior persists into adulthood.Even having the TV on in the home is linked to more aggressive behavior in 3-year-olds. This was regardless of the type of programming and regardless of whether the child was actually watching the TV.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, in a review of the literature, says that violent programming can cause kids to:

Become "immune" or numb to the horror of violenceGradually accept violence as a way to solve problemsImitate the violence they observe on television; andIdentify with certain characters, victims and/or victimizers. Studies show that even when the family atmosphere shows no tendency toward violence, kids can develop these symptoms.

The Academy psychiatrists suggest that parents protect children from excessive TV violence in the following ways:

  • Pay attention to the programs their children are watching and watch some with them.

  • Set limits on the amount of time they spend with the television.

  • Remove the TV set from the child's bedroom.

  • Point out that although the actor has not actually been hurt or killed, such violence in real life results in pain or death.

  • Refuse to let the children see shows known to be violent, and change the channel or turn off the TV set when offensive material comes on, with an explanation of what is wrong with the program.

  • Disapprove of the violent episodes in front of the children, stressing the belief that such behavior is not the best way to resolve a problem.

  • To offset peer pressure among friends and classmates, contact other parents and agree to enforce similar rules about the length of time and type of program the children may watch.


Most toddlers and preschoolers who have never been exposed to TV and computer are used to keeping themselves occupied, and they stay busy. But if you're trying to break the electronic habit, try using audio books instead. These are more creative (since your child supplies the imagery in his own mind) and not addictive, but they offer kids downtime during which they're engrossed in something and less likely to need your attention.

To address times when your child just needs an activity of any kind, try an Idea Jar for boredom busting.

I should caution you that kids won't be able to occupy themselves if you have not spent any time that day with your child -- he needs his fix of parental attention and only something as engaging as TV or computer will divert him. But if you've spent the last hour building towers and reading to him, his emotional bank is full of your undivided attention. Now he just needs a transition to get into the next thing.

It’s great if you have a jar pre-filled with ideas, for when you draw a blank.

“Do you want to draw a picture for Grandma? Build a city for your beanie babies? Listen and dance to music? Cut out strips of paper and make a paper chain that reaches across the living room? Put on your jacket and make a sand castle in the sandbox? Or come up with an even better idea on your own?”

Of course, your child may not need a structured activity. Many preschoolers left to their own devices are happy to engage in fantasy play with an imaginary friend or some action figures. My daughter at age four would say "I think I'll play with Betsy" (her imaginary friend) and stay happily occupied for an hour.

Make it clear that it’s their job to entertain themselves. Once they get used to it, they will come to love this time on their own. The benefits to their imagination and self regulation are priceless. And learning the skill of managing their time and entertaining themselves is an essential protective gift for children growing up in our over-scheduled culture.

Article courtesy of By Dr. Laura Markham

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