by Nicole Bronson
Did you ever watch Barney or Sesame Street growing up? Nowadays, in addition to Barney and Sesame Street, there are even more TV shows aimed at kids, ranging from a sponge that lives under the sea to a little Spanish-speaking girl who explores with her monkey friend! There is even an entire TV channel, BabyFirst , which is devoted to TV programs for babies. Technology, TV especially, seems to be more frequently targeting young kids as well as babies (Christakis & Zimmerman, 2009). And despite warnings that early TV exposure should not occur in children under 2 years of age, many parents still allow their children to watch TV younger than this age. My best friend claims her 2 and 3-year old niece and nephew first started watching TV as soon as they were born! What parents may not know is that by allowing their children to watch TV at very young ages, they may be negatively impacting their children’s future cognitive performance and brains.
A study conducted at Wake Forest University (2007) investigated whether or not watching teletubbies teaches 15-24 month-old children new words. The lead researcher, Marina Krcmar, compared 15-24 month-old children’s abilities to learn new words from teletubbies to their abilities to learn new words from a present adult speaker. Interestingly, children were much better learning words from responsive adults than from the television program. Thus, it seems learning new words at very young ages entails interaction with present, human teachers. Children under the age of 2 may not be reaching their full cognitive and language potential learning from a TV, instead of an adult.
Also acknowledging the importance of determining the relationship between television children’s learning abilities, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently released a new policy statement about technology use by children younger than two. The new statement was created in lieu of technological advancements and new research that has been conducted since the original policy statement was released in 1999. The original policy statement discouraged media exposure for children under the age of 2. Meanwhile, the new policy statement also discourages media exposure for this age group, while additionally providing more scientifically backed reasons for why media exposure should be avoided. Similar to the Wake Forest University study, this new policy claims children under 2 cannot comprehend what they are watching, and therefore do not get much educational benefit from it. Additionally, media exposure may exert negative health effects on children under age 2, just as it has been shown to do in preschool and elementary school children. These negative health effects may include increased aggression, attentional problems, sleep troubles and obesity. Even simply having the TV on in the background may have negative effects on children under age 2. Focusing on the TV rather than their child, parents may inadvertently take away from the quality of parent-child interactions. This long list of potential adverse effects due to early media exposure was sufficient enough for the AAP to reaffirm the claim they made in 1999 and continue to discourage media use by children less than 2 years of age.
With an increasing number of children under the age of 2 watching television, it’s important to understand if television does actually induce detrimental effects and if so, how exactly it exerts these effects. Adverse effects may be influenced by television’s impact on brain development that is occurring very rapidly in children at an early age (Siegler, DeLoache & Eisenberg, 2011). Although babies’ are born with the majority of neurons they will have for the rest of their lives, many changes occur within and between their neurons, especially early in life. One such change that takes place is called arborization, where neurons’ dendrites grow and differentiate. It literally looks like a tree! The development does not end there, however, as neurons then begin to form connections with thousands of other neurons in what is called synaptogenesis. So many connections are made, however, that some must be pruned. This synaptic pruning—loss of neuronal connections—occurs in about 40% of the synapses and is mediated by a “use it or lose it” phenomenon. Basically experience is key in determining which synapses are used and therefore kept and which synapses are not used and therefore pruned. Sensory experiences babies encounter early on in life are extremely important then for signaling, which neurons are appropriate to maintain and which are appropriate to prune. The major concern with TV exposure for babies is that it takes away from critical sensory experiences they would have had if not watching TV. As most TV watching is a passive experience, children are not being exposed to different types of stimuli—olfactory, tactile, gustatory—they may be exposed to if not watching TV. A member of the AAP Council on Communication and Media, Dr. Brown, recommends that babies, instead of watching television, engage in unstructured play. Unstructured play is important for motor development, problem solving and creative thinking and thus contributes greatly to sensory experiences. Furthermore, with less TV distractions, parents and children may be able to interact more, potentially leading to better language development in the child. Physical interactions are key for sensory development and cannot be sufficiently replaced by a video.
With some surveys claiming that 90% of children younger than 2 have been exposed to technological media, learning about what adverse effects might result from TV watching needs to be brought to the forefront of the research world. Sadly, little research has been done specifically on children under age 2 with regard to media exposure. Naturalistic, longitudinal studies should be conducted from birth to adulthood to see what possible correlations can be made between early media exposure and negative future consequences.
With my parents claiming I watched Barney and Sesame Street earlier than 2 years old, I can only imagine what synapses might have been pruned and put me at a disadvantage now. The next time you’re inclined to pop in a video for those 1-2 year olds you babysit, think twice. You might just be taking away from the valuable nature of human interaction and sensory experiences!
BabyFirst (2011). In www.babyfirsttv.com [Web site]. Experience babyfirsttv. Retrieved December 6, 2011 from: http://www.babyfirsttv.com/parents/tv#how-babyfirsttv-born
Carey, B. (2011, October 18). Parents urged again to limit TV for youngest. The New York Times. Retrieved December 6, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/19/health/19babies.html?_r=2
Christakis, D. A., & Zimmerman, F. J. (2009). Young children and media: Limitations of current knowledge and future directions for research. American Behavioral Scientist, 52, 8, 1177-1185.
Council on Communications and Media. (2011). Media use by children younger than 2 years. Pediatrics, 128, 5, 1040-1045. doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-1753
PBS Parents (2011). In http://www.pbs.org [Web site]. TV and kids under age 3. Retrieved December 6, 2011 from: http://www.pbs.org/parents/childrenandmedia/article-faq.html
American Academy of Pediatrics (2011, October 18). Babies and toddlers should learn from play, not screens. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111018084628.htm
Wake Forest University (2007, June 27). Turn off TV to teach toddlers new words. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 16, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070627221722.htm
Siegler, R. S., DeLoache, J. S., & Eisenberg, N. (2011). How children develop. New York: Worth Publishers.