Television: changing our children from an irresistible force to an immovable object?

25th March, 2010 - Posted by Drboo - No Comments

A recent headline in the Daily Mail proclaimed:

Baby DVDs fail to boost word power: ‘Einstein’ show could do more harm than good1
They went on to state that toddlers watching these DVDs had worse vocabularies than those who didn’t watch them.

Is watching TV good or bad for baby?

Is watching TV good or bad for baby?

Other headlines have added to parents’ fears that television could be bad for baby:

TV Linked to Attention Deficit
Want a smart baby? TV’s not going to help
Does watching TV cause Autism?

By the way, on that last headline (from Time in October 2006) I can assure you here and now that, no, it doesn’t.

So, is TV bad for your baby?

The Evidence – making your baby a genius

The “Baby Einstein” DVDs are part of a larger group of DVDs aimed at children. Baby Mozart came with the following press release:

Parents should think of Baby Mozart as a gentle introduction for children to the music of Mozart. … that will stimulate a baby’s brain with musical and visual experiences. And based on the research data about an increase in spatial intelligence and physical well-being, parents who purchase the video for their babies can feel confident that their children are receiving a good head start2

Sounds good and evidence based, doesn’t it? So where is this research?

Well, in 1993 a group of researchers found that listening to Mozart helped increase spatial awareness3 (The Mozart Effect). This was jumped on by parents – especially as other evidence suggested that Romanian orphans, previously neglected and backward, could catch up with their peers if they were placed in foster care before 2 years old – after two years their cognitive skills remained damaged3. Thus came the conclusion – we can hothouse our children….with Mozart!

However, the Mozart Effect has also been found to be a “Stephen King effect” (another study has found the same benefits after listening to a passage of a Stephen King novel4). The original study had its flaws – the study was conducted using only 36 participants, all undergraduates. Also the Mozart Effect only applied to an improvement in one spatial awareness task, only if listening to nothing but the music, and then the results are only temporarily (10-15 minutes). Interesting, but no great shakes, really. Finally, and very importantly for this particular subject – the research HAS NEVER BEEN CONDUCTED ON BABIES. The youngest age group has been 11 years old (and then it didn’t work)5.

Despite this, this is what the Baby Mozart press release said about the research:
The data demonstrated an unmistakable link between music and increased spatial intelligence. Spatial intelligence and reasoning are crucial for higher brain functions such as complex mathematics and science, as well as the ability to play chess and solve puzzles. The finding showed that music lessons, or even simply listening to music — particularly music composed by Mozart — increased the students’ spatial reasoning performance on intelligence tests2

A study specifically examined whether Baby Wordsworth (part of the Baby Einstein range) could improve a child’s vocabulary, as it purported to do. The children (between 12 and 15 months) who watched the DVD had no increased growth on either expressive or receptive language when compared to children in the control group, even after multiple exposures. The most significant predictor of vocabulary comprehension and production scores was the amount of time children were read to6.

The evidence that DVDs can help create baby geniuses is flawed

The evidence that DVDs can help create baby geniuses is flawed

OK, so there is no evidence it can help – but can TV harm your baby?

The Evidence – TV as harmful

Research suggests that, by 3 months of age, 40% of babies regularly watch TV, DVDs or videos – at an average of 1 hour a day. This increases to 90% by 24 months, with children this age watching an average of 1.5 hours a day. Parents use TV for entertainment, babysitting, but also to help educate their children7.

A fascinating claim was made by some economists in 2006, who studied data from 1972 to 1989 and came up with the theory that an increase in the diagnoses of Autism are inextricably linked to an increase in television watching. They were so sure of this link that they claimed that their findings were “consistent with early childhood television viewing being an important trigger for autism”8. There are so many holes in this thesis it is hard to know where to start. Firstly, they did not actually measure television watching – just the growth of cable and precipitation (yes, precipitation, on the theory that where it rains more, children watch more TV). Secondly, yes, rates of Autism have been increasing. There are many possible reasons for this, including better detection and broadening of the definition9. To find one piece of technology and link the apparent rise with that is somewhat odd – why television? Why not something else that we use more of now than we did in the 1970s? Computers, mobile phones, energy-saving light bulbs?

What about Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)? Research has been carried out that links early television viewing to attention difficulties in childhood. The theory behind this is that television can be overstimulating yet very interesting, which leads to children developing short attention spans. One study10 found a clear link between the hours of television watched between the ages of 1 and 3 and attention problems at 7 years. It is important to note some problems with this study – attention problems are not the same as ADHD. It was not clinically diagnosed among participants in this study. Also, the hours of television watching were estimated by their parents – not necessarily a very reliable measure and what programmes they were watching was not noted. There was no measure as to whether the parents had ADHD or something similar and there was no measure of what quality the interactions were between parents and children – whether they watched TV together, or whether they read to or played with their children regularly, or just put them in front of the TV. Finally, it is not possible to assume which way the relationship went – did the children watch more TV because they have attention problems, or have attention problems because they watched TV?

Other studies into television viewing and ADHD have focussed on school age children, and many of the problems mentioned above still apply – in fact more so in children where ADHD is likely to be established (these children may watch TV because they have ADHD rather than vice versa).

Those who are adamantly against TV for children often cite a study which found adverse effects on children who watched TV before 3 years7. The negative effects were found on two tests of reading and one of memory. A similar study found that children with frequent television viewing have delayed development of speech, even with parental talking during television watching11.

These studies, however, have been reliably disproved by other research13, which found that, after taking into account a vast array of possible factors (maternal age, income, education, breastfeeding duration, average daily sleep duration to name but a few) each additional hour of television viewing was not associated with negative effects on language or visual motor skills at 3 years of age. This study was longitudinal, so the parents were asked about their children’s TV habits when they were actually 6 months, then 1 year, then 2 years, rather than being asked about what they recalled 3 years later, which is much more reliable as a way of collecting data. It is worth remembering though, while no negative effects were found, no positive ones were found either.

There may be problems with regular sleep schedules for babies and toddlers who watch TV14. But there is no proof which way this relationship goes – they may have more regular sleep because they watch lots of TV, or they may watch more TV than their peers who sleep more regularly because they are not napping so often. That said it would not be a huge surprise if babies and toddlers who watch lots of TV find it hard to have good, regular sleep. It certainly seems like a good idea to keep TV out of bedrooms due to the risk of it interfering with sleep.

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommend no television viewing for children below the age of two and no more than one to two hours per day for older children15. The reasoning behind this is that young children are very susceptible to the messages they see on TV, and very young children have trouble separating reality from what they see on TV. Couple this with the violence, aggressive behaviour, drug, alcohol use and smoking, and advertising aimed at children and it is not surprising they recommend keeping children away from it.

However, controlled television watching may give more benefits than negative possibilities – television can model good behaviour, sharing, co-operation. It can lead to conversations and debates which may not usually come up in daily life. Finally, some programmes include aspects to keep toddlers active – jumping up and down and doing yoga positions – so it is not necessary for programmes to encourage a sedentary lifestyle.


Television won’t help your baby become a genius, but it can be educational and it can be fun. It can encourage toddlers to move about and can teach them, and can lead to conversations within the family that may not otherwise have occurred. TV can also give parents a well deserved rest.

Some TV can be harmful due to the content – aggression, drug and alcohol use, etc, and a great deal of marketing is aimed at young children. You would want to know who was influencing your child, so monitoring what is being watched and not putting a TV in your child’s bedroom would be sensible (in the US, 19% of children under 1 have a television in their bedroom16) – perhaps the focus should be on watching TV together as a family.

The research that TV can damage children is not terribly reliable – there is certainly no good evidence to suggest it causes ADHD or Autism. That said, plonking little Johnny in front of the tube all day isn’t going to be good for him – the evidence suggests that reading to your child (singing, playing and generally interacting) gives them the best start in life.

I think that Dr Sears sums it up nicely:

“I think it is a good show if the child is interacting with it, singing along, or dancing along. If the child just “zones-out” and stares at the tube, then you should probably find a different show. This is mainly for older infants that have the coordination to respond. At four-months-old, most infants will just stare, and that’s fine, plus it gives mom a break”

Further Reading;107/2/423


1. retrieved 20.03.2010
2. retrieved 20.03.2010
3. Rauscher, F. H., Shaw, G. L, & Ky, K. N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365, 611.
4. Rumbelow, H. 2009. Why watching TV won’t turn your baby into a genius. The Times. 29 October 2009.
5. McKelvie, P. & Low, J. (2002). Listening to Mozart does not improve children’s spatial ability: Final curtains for the Mozart effect. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 20, 241-258
6. Robb, M.B., Richert, R.A., Wartella, E.A. 2009. British Journal of Developmental Biology. 27(19):27-45
7. Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A., Meltzoff, A.N. (2007). Television and DVD/Video Viewing in Children Younger Than 2 Years Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(5):473-479.
8. Waldman, M., Nicholson, S., Adilov, N. 2006. Does Television cause Autism? retrieved 23.03.2010
9. Rutter M. 2005 Incidence of autism spectrum disorders: changes over time and their meaning. Acta Paediatr. 94(1):2-15
10. Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman, F. J., Guisseppe, D.L., McCarty, C.A. 2004. Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics 113: 708-713
11. Zimmerman, F.J. and Christakis, D.A. 2005. Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes: A Longitudinal Analysis of National Data Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 159:619-625
12. Tanimura, M., and Okuma, K.M.A. 2007. Television Viewing, Reduced Parental Utterance, and Delayed Speech Development in Infants and Young Children Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(6):618-619.
13. Marie Evans Schmidt, Michael Rich, Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Emily Oken and Elsie Taveros, M. 2009. Television Viewing in Infancy and Child Cognition at 3 Years of Age in a US Cohort. Pediatrics 123: 370-375
14. Thompson, D.A. and Christakis, D.A. 2005. The association between television viewing and irregular sleep schedules among children less than 3 years of age. Pediatrics 116(4): 851-856
15. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2001. Policy statement: Children, Adolescents and Television.;107/2/423. retrieved 23.03.2010
16. Rideout, V. & Hamel, E. (2006) The Media Family: Electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their parents. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation

No Comments

No Comments

Leave a reply

Name *

Mail *