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Effects of Watching TV on Babies and Children?

Jan Murray

Television is my pet hate – just ask my kids”. I have been a television Nazi since day one because it is a serious issue in a child’s development. In my opinion when it comes to television, turn it off, pretend it is broken, whatever; just be in control of it while you can and while your children are forming behaviour habits. It is not just my opinion there is much research around in all areas of development to justify my hate.

Brain research suggests that watching television under two years old is pushing your child into tasks the brain is not developmentally ready to take on. (John Medina – developmental biologist) Television is an all-pervasive and highly influential element in the lives of most Australian babies and children today. Children of different ages watch and understand television in different ways, depending on the length of their attention span, the ways in which they process information, the amount of mental effort they invest, their own life experiences and parental input.

There are a variety of studies that show television viewing before the age of three may have adverse effects on subsequent cognitive development and neural programming for the future. In fact, 90% of the brain’s neural pathways are laid down by three years old. After this, they are added to and built on.

Babies discover the ways of their mother from listening and intuitively picking up on her specific movements and sounds. Having the constant background noise and flashes of the television may inhibit this vital connection.

Learn more about your toddler

Under two years old television is a negative influence in a variety of ways. This is seen regularly in babies and toddlers with eating and sleeping issues. Some situations that occur with regular television watching include:

  • the inability to settle and sleep
  • a low energy output
  • their lack of muscle strength
  • the flattened head shape of a baby who is propped regularly in front of the television
  • their lack of enjoyment and involvement in the developing process of eating
  • the reduced eye contact and interaction that parents have with their babies

Encourage no television watching for children under two years old; instead focus on interacting with them and helping them to discover life skills that stay with them into the future.

Preschoolers (three to five year olds), actively search for meaning in television content but are also attracted to vivid production features, such as rapid character movement, rapid changes of scenery and intense or unexpected sights and sounds. With this preference for cartoons, preschoolers are being exposed to a large number of violent acts in their viewing day leading to the increased risk of violent behaviour and poor sleeping patterns. Aim to limit preschool television to no more than one hour of non violent or educational shows per day.

Up until seven years old children are active participants, initiators and experimenters of what life has to offer. In other words, they learn through play. The cognitive growth and formulation of answers to their many questions occur as they interact using all their senses (sight, touch, taste, hearing and smell) with the world around them. Babies and children need to be given opportunities to participate, initiate and experiment with a variety of materials to enhance this growth. If they are watching television be mindful of what is shown on the screen as children do not understand the difference between fact and fantasy until they are seven years old. Logical reasoning does not develop until later. Three to seven year olds think in images and pictures therefore characters may come alive in their vivid imagination during the quiet of the night. Turning the television off two hours prior to bed and encouraging happy and relaxing books and play as a family, can help reduce the incidence of nightmares and night terrors.

There is increasing evidence to support television viewing is associated with obesity (effecting one in four children) in the areas of:

  • snacking on poor nutritive foods
  • decreased awareness of the amount of food consumed
  • demands of poor food choices from advertising
  • lack of physical activity
  • unmotivated energies

It is also associated with anger, nightmares and increasing brain wave activity, making it difficult for babies and children to settle and sleep well. Poor sleep then produces overtiredness and further behaviour challenges.

Suggested television viewing for optimum growth and development of babies and children:

  • no television viewing under two years old (even in the background)
  • half an hour of television viewing for toddlers (12 months to three years)
  • limit viewing to a maximum of an hour a day for preschoolers (three to five years)
  • no snacking while watching television
  • no watching television while eating meals
  • discuss the shows that are watched and suggest role play ideas and activities

This article may seem tough but your child’s future depends on it.

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