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Every Extra Hour of TV Hurts Small Children

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

Parents know that television viewing doesn’t make children smarter. Most of us realize that television viewing actually makes children less smart, by taking up time that could have been devoted to more intellectually stimulating activities.

Now a new Canadian study of nearly 2,000 children puts actual numbers to what most parents know. Researchers found that every hour of television viewing over the recommended maximum of 2 hours per day, for children aged two and a half, reduces their kindergarten performance in vocabulary, math skills, classroom engagement, physical coordination, and social skills.

Here’s what researchers found: given the average amount of daily television viewing reported by parents of two-year-olds (they reported an average of 105 minutes, or a little more than an hour and a half), scientists at the University of Montreal calculated how far above this average corresponded with a difference in kindergarten readiness skills. They found that for every ‘standard deviation’ about the average – for about every additional 72 minutes of watching – children’s level of kindergarten readiness diminished significantly.

Lead researcher, Linda Pagani, wanted to know about TV’s effect on academic skills readiness, like vocabulary and math, but also on other abilities predictive of a happy kindergarten experience. She said, “I also wanted to focus on neglected yet crucial aspects of school readiness such as motor skills, which predict later physical activity and reading skills, likelihood of being “picked-on,” which predict social difficulties, and skills linked to doing what you are supposed to be doing when having been given instructions, which are in turn linked to attention systems that are regulated by the brain’s frontal lobe development.”

Pagani said, “This is the first time ever that a stringently controlled associational birth cohort study has looked at and found a relationship between too much toddler screen time and kindergarten risks for poor motor skills and psychosocial difficulties, like victimization by classmates.”

The implications for parents are clear: limit television viewing for toddlers and preschool children. Remember that even “educational television” detracts from children’s later abilities. Limit television viewing at home and ask about the amount of television viewing that goes on at daycare.

Parents who’ve come to rely on television to keep their little kids occupied might wonder what else they can do that won’t invite trouble. Here are some ideas:

  1. Turn on background music. The problem is that if the TV is off, children who are used to it running may feel lost. Keep on music – any sort of music will do – and let children play with that as their background.
  2. Keep off computers and handhelds. Don’t replace one screen (the television) with other screens. Although the study didn’t talk about DVD players and video games, remember that it’s all the same to your child’s brain.
  3. Offer art supplies in an area that can get messy. Paints, crayons and markers are all fun.
  4. Start a dress-up box of old clothes, hats, and other fun-starters. Spark your children’s imagination and pretend play.
  5. Get outside. Running around, digging in the dirt, and picking up rocks and feathers are all great, brain-building activities.
  6. Play with building toys. Blocks and Lego are good for both girls and boys, and teach math skills and coordination.
  7. Set up a ramp (an old shelf on the edge of the couch works) and roll cars, balls, and whatever else will go. This is fun for every two-year-old.
  8. Play in water. A dishpan of water – on the kitchen floor or out on the sidewalk – is fun for splashing, pouring, and floating things. Water play is great when children can’t think of anything else to do.
  9. Dance. If the music is playing, get up and dance! A certain way to make kids laugh.
  10. Play with an empty box. The bigger the box the better!
  11. Have books available. Twos will sit and “read” stories to themselves. This is a key part of being ready for kindergarten three years into the future.
  12. Just let play happen. Once the TV is off – and stays off – children will discover things to do all on their own. The simplest materials inspire children’s imaginations and adults just need to get out of the way.

The average amount of television viewing for the children in this study was just 105 minutes a day. Another 72 minutes (a total of about 3 hours) resulted in learning deficits. Another 72 minutes more (a total of about 4 hours) resulted in even greater learning loss.

Keep track. How much TV did your kids watch today? What else did your kids do instead?


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.