Tuesday, September 6, 2011

At What Age Should Kids be Allowed to Watch TV?

I presume I'm not the only parent who wonders when television should be introduced to children. Fortunately there is quite a bit of guidance available. My guess is what follows barely scratches the surface. But I've done quite a bit of thinking on this subject and hope others will benefit from my philosophy on the subject.

Before becoming a parent, I heard this story (via Slate's daily podcast, which I recommend as an excellent variety podcast) about a possible link between early TV watching and autism. This article is a must-read for parents, although I will not harp on the TV/autism connection here; the article merely served as a seed to get me thinking on the subject of TV viewing by young children. (I do not intend to debate autism on my blog.) The article has a broken link to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics; here is the fixed link.

Even if the observed link between TV watching and autism is subsequently determined to not be causal (and the source study only concludes correlation, not causation), there are certainly other considerations which are at least as important. For one, no matter how hard parents try to justify the benefits of their particular TV programming, TV time is not learning/interaction time (for example, consider this about the actual effect being the opposite of the intended effect). You might as well call it like it is: Use of the TV with younger kids constitutes a break for the parent; an opportunity to do something else, like prepare a meal, fold clothes, or sweep and mop. But while they're watching, your kids may be entertained, but their development has been temporarily placed on hold. This should not be controversial: Kids grew up just fine without TV before TV existed, so TV cannot be considered a child development magic bullet.

My own parental experience with TV can be summarized as follows:

  • I admit to starting both my boys on TV watching before 2, mainly out of necessity: The younger one was born when my older one was 19 months, and we used TV a little bit--always in moderation--just to get through the challenges of being new parents.
  • Once the TV genie is out, it can be difficult to put back in the bottle. Difficult, but not impossible: firmness can overcome insistence. If I am firm, a few minutes of begging and/or crying is replaced by more productive activities. The child literally cuts his/her losses and moves on.
  • I try to get my kids to do at least as much reading and outside play time as TV watching--that is, if there is a half-hour of TV viewing on a particular day, I try to get a half-hour of reading and a half-hour of outdoor play time that day too. (Indoor play time is automatic, as that's the default behavior at this age.) I also try to come up with activities that remove them from the house so as to make TV viewing impossible for an entire day. Daycare helps with that.
  • TV viewing can be used as a reward. When my older son wouldn't potty train, we withheld things one by one, including TV. He actually went months without watching a single TV show, which was fine for both of us: He got to keep using diapers, and we discovered other ways to keep him entertained. Once he lost the diapers, he got to watch TV again, in moderation of course. I think that ultimately the lure of watching TV helped get him off the fence, so to speak, and on to big-boy underwear. The concept is extensible to daily interactions. Generally the TV doesn't get turned on until my boy does something small to earn it, like pick up his toys.
Ultimately, as long as TV watching is limited so as to be a small portion of your child's total experience, you should be okay.

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