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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.

For most families of school age kids, mornings include television or DVDs or a tablet. The kids get up – sometimes before the parents do, sometimes, groggily, when called – and either entertain themselves or wake themselves fully while parked in front of a screen.

They might take a break for breakfast or they might eat while viewing. They might dress in front of the TV or put the program on pause and hurry to dress and get back to the show.  And their parents do exactly the same.

In between getting the children started on the day, Mom and Dad get their own day started with a check of Facebook, a check of the weather or traffic report, a check of their bank balance, or a scan of the news. Between the coffee and the walk to the bus stop, a lot of electronic engagement takes place.  Screens have become part of the early morning ritual, for parents as well as for children.

This makes pulling the plug on electronics even more difficult. We grownups like our quiet time, enjoying our screens along with our coffee, and we don’t think we’re ready to parent full time just yet. But our screen habit might be getting the day off to the wrong start.

Studies have shown that most small children watch between two-and-a-half and five hours of television or other electronic entertainment a day. That’s an awful lot. But we don’t even notice the hours spent because they are hours we also are connected to something else – our work or our own screens – and we are happy for the peace and quiet.

The more television children watch, the less exercise they get, the more connected they are to advertising, the more they snack, and the smaller their vocabularies and ability to think. The research is pretty clear: television and other screen-based entertainment add nothing to young children’s quality of life and, in fact, detract from it.

I’m not suggesting that you do away with TV altogether. I recognize that’s impractical for most families. But I am suggesting that you keep it off – and keep off computers, handhelds, and phones – until after school and after work. Yes, I’m including you in this. I’ll give you a quick check of the weather and the traffic report but that’s all. Break the habit.

What are you likely to find? After a bit of a withdrawal, perhaps, you’ll find that you and your children have time you never dreamed of in the mornings. There’s time to play and do things that wasn’t there before. If you like, you and your child can read together, but remember that keeping your child busy isn’t your responsibility. Don’t replace one entertainment – a screen – with another – you.

You likely will find that the entire family is more calm, more centered, and less stressed in the mornings. There’s not the pull of a screen to distract us from each other and mesmerize us. The trick is to not give up and give in. Stick with this. Breaking a habit is hard.

The reward is a better beginning to the day. Try it!

© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Look for free downloads on Dr. Anderson’s website at