Infants, Toddlers and Television

Despite marketing claims that some television programs and DVDs help infants and toddlers learn, recent studies show that TV provides only empty calories for a child’s growing brain. The following research brief reviews the evidence that parents and caregivers of young children should take television off the menu.

Television plays a central role in children's everyday lives.

Almost all American families have at least one TV set, and half own three or more.1 Two-thirds of children age six and under watch television every day, usually for around two hours.2 But television’s influence doesn’t end when a child’s favorite show is over. Even when he is involved in other activities, such as playing alone or spending time with his parents, there is likely to be a television on nearby. 3,4

A large body of research shows that too much television can have negative effects on children’s behavior, achievement, and health.5,6 Other research finds that what children are watching is as important as how much they are watching. For instance, some studies show that preschoolers who watch educational programs like Sesame Street have better academic outcomes in elementary school.7

What about younger children? Most studies on children and television involve preschoolers and older children, but researchers have recently begun to study television’s effects on children under three. The results consistently show that very young children perceive TV differently than older children and may be affected by it differently. 8

Infants and toddlers watch more TV than ever before.

The first three years of life are the most significant period of a child’s development, especially for the brain, which is growing faster than any other part of the body. During this time, a child’s brain is more receptive to positive influences—and more vulnerable to negative ones—than it will be in later years.9,109,10 years.9,10 In the late 1990s, as early brain development became a widely discussed topic, researchers began to ask about the role of television in the lives of infants and toddlers.

Around the same time, the first infant-directed videos and television programs began to appear. 11,12 As a result, infant and toddler exposure to television has increased dramatically in the last 15 years:

  • Almost all infants and toddlers are exposed TV or videos every day, usually for about 1 or 2 hours. 12,13
  • Around two-thirds of mothers with three-year-olds report that their child watched two hours or more per day. 14
  • If background television is included, very young children are exposed to an average of four hours of television each day. 4

Early television watching can endanger healthy development.

In addition to reporting young children’s increased exposure to television, these studies have also discovered that TV in the first three years of life can have a negative impact on healthy development:

  • Infant exposure to television has been linked to delayed language development and kindergarten readiness skills. 15,16
  • Early exposure to TV has also been connected to attention disorders and sleep problems. 17,18
  • TV use at age three has been linked to behavior problems and to long-term effects on social development, classroom engagement, and academic achievement. 14,19,20

Television, videos, and DVDs are not effective teachers.

Advocates of infant-directed programs and videos claim that these products can benefit children. Most are marketed as educational tools that promote brain development and cognitive skills. 11 In a survey of over 1,000 families, parents shared their reasons for allowing their infants and toddlers to watch TV and videos. The most common reason was the belief that “the television and video programs that I have my child watch teach him/her something or are good for his/her brain”. 13

However, claims like these are not supported by research. Studies generally find that for children younger than three years, television, videos, and DVDs are not effective teachers. 21-23 Even worse, they may crowd out healthier activities and set the stage for heavier television use throughout childhood. 12

Based on these concerns, the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends that children under age two do not watch television, and that older children watch only one or two hours of quality programming. 24

Babies' brains are not ready for television.

Why does TV affect very young children differently than older children? The answer involves the remarkable changes that are happening in the brain during the first three years of life. When a baby is born, his brain has about all of the neurons (or nerve cells) it will ever have. But the job of forming connections between them is still underway. This is especially true in brain areas that support advanced abilities like memory and abstract thought.10

Although watching television is a passive activity, understanding television requires certain skills. In the first few years of life, many of these skills are only beginning to develop. To a baby, television is a stream of 2-dimensional pictures that change about every 6 seconds and have no apparent connection to each other, to the sounds coming from the same direction, or to real people and objects. Before a child can learn from television, he must be able to connect these images into a meaningful whole. 25

For the first six months, a baby understands little of what he sees on the screen. TV’s colors and sounds may capture his attention for brief periods, but he lacks the ability to process what he is watching or to pay attention for long. 12

Later in the first year, as his cognitive and perceptual abilities continue to improve, a baby may be able to recognize people and objects on the screen. He is unlikely, however, to grasp how images relate to each other and to the real objects they represent. 26

Most researchers agree that meaningful learning from television is unlikely before age three, when children begin to understand the relationship between TV and reality. 12,26

Children do not have to watch television to be affected by it.

In many households with children, the television is on most or all of the time, whether or not someone is watching. Half of children’s TV exposure consists of background television—television that a child can see or hear even though he is not actively watching. 2,4,26

Everyday activities like singing, playing, and exploring help babies and toddlers sharpen their cognitive abilities and motor skills, but the frequent distractions caused by background television can hinder this process. Young children are less able to focus on active, hands-on play while the television is on. Background TV can threaten cognitive and language development and may be linked to attention problems later in childhood. 17,28

Babies and toddlers are social learners.

Although a baby’s brain is not wired to understand television, it is well-equipped to learn from social interactions. At birth, the brain networks that support interactive learning have already begun to develop. A newborn can recognize faces and voices and is sensitive to social cues such as eye contact, facial expressions, and tone of voice. 29 These cues are learning aids that help babies and toddlers understand their surroundings.

Numerous studies have shown that babies learn better from people than from pictures. For instance, infants and toddlers who see a live demonstration of a simple task are more likely to remember it than those who watched a video of the same task. This “video deficit” continues until around age three and possibly beyond. 26 Positive interactions with parents and caregivers provide the social and emotional context that a baby needs in order to learn effectively.

When the television is on, quality time suffers.

Many educational programs and videos for infants and toddlers claim to benefit children by providing opportunities for parent-child interactions. Research provides several reasons why this is unlikely to be true:

  • Even during children's first three years, educational content makes up only half of what they watch. 13
  • When the television is on, even in the background, parents talk and play with their infants less often. When they do, they are less attentive and engaged. 4,15
  • Even when children are watching programs and DVDs designed to promote interaction, parents watch with them less than half the time. 8,13

Positive interactions are the best learning experiences a child can have.

Over ten years have passed since the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its recommendation that children under age two do not watch television and that older children watch only one or two hours per day. At that time, there was little research on television’s effects on infants and toddlers. Studies that have appeared in the past decade, however, support the Academy’s position.

A heavy diet of television provides only empty calories for a child’s growing brain. Active, hands-on play and warm, responsive parenting nourish children’s early development. Because more time in front of the screen means less time for play and shared activities, TV’s increasing presence in the daily lives of young children has dire implications. The evidence is clear: Parents and caregivers of infants and toddlers can promote learning, achievement, and health by taking television off the menu.

So what can we as caregivers do?

Turning on the television might seem like the easy solution, but the truth is that there are other ways for even the busiest family members to entertain our children…

  • Talk to your child; tell him or her a story about your day, about the weather, about an imaginary world, about anything!
  • Sing to your child; the tones, pitches, and noises are all new and exciting!
  • Point out and count new objects and let your baby touch them. Believe it or not, babies can start learning basic mathematical concepts by simply watching you count something!

Want more ideas? Check out:

  1. Nielsen Company. Television Audience 2008. 2009. Available at:  Accessed September 1, 2011.
  2. Rideout VJ, Hamel E. The media family: Electronic media in the lives of infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their parents. Kaiser Family Foundation; 2006. Available at:  Accessed on September 2, 2011.
  3. Christakis DA. The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what should we learn? Acta Pædiatrica. 2009; 98: 8–16.
  4. Kirkorian HL, Pempek TA, Murphy LA, et al. The impact of background television on parent-child interaction. Child Development. 2009; 80: 1350-1359.
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