This should come as sweet relief to those of us who’ve been known to park little Jackson or Olivia in front of Wonder Pets! while we make breakfast. It also confirms something many moms have long suspected: If I’ve spent the first year of my baby’s life talking, singing and reading to her, playing with her, salsa-babying and infant-massaging her, there’s no way 15 minutes of TV time while I binge-drink coffee is going to undo all that early stimulation.
Letting 16-month-old James* watch an hour of TV per day helps Toronto mom Samantha Collins* get through such tasks as meal-prep and answering email. “TV benefits my sanity. I don’t believe it’s making James smarter or teaching him anything. But I don’t believe it’s doing any harm either,” she says. Yet, she admits, “There’s always the guilt: “Good moms don’t let their tots watch TV’ — which is so unfair. Sometimes you just need 15 minutes of knowing exactly where your kid is while you get stuff done.”
Although prior research had connected TV viewing to cognitive delay, in those studies a lack of controlling for socio-demographic and environmental factors may have skewed results. Says one of the researchers of the Children’s Hospital Boston/Harvard study, Dr. Marie Evans Schmidt, “Children who watch large amounts of TV in infancy are more likely to come from families with lower incomes and lower parent education levels, and their parents are more likely to score lower on language and vocabulary tests. Children who come from homes or families with these characteristics are also more likely to score lower on cognition tests.”
TV, as it turns out, is not the cause of developmental delays; it’s a “marker or indicator” that children come from homes with these characteristics, “characteristics that themselves predict poorer outcomes on
language and visual motor skills tests,” says Dr. Schmidt. Other studies have linked excessive TV viewing by infants with mothers in distress and parents with less education, perhaps contributing to the stereotype that
only “bad moms” let their kids watch TV.
Among the circle of new moms in Collins’s upwardly mobile neighbourhood, TV is eschewed. “Supposedly, their kids don’t watch TV, but I notice some of them know the songs from In the Night Garden. So my guess is they let their kids watch it,” but are too embarrassed to cop to it, says Collins.
While Dr. Schmidt recommends limiting TV viewing as much as possible, “every parent has to make the best choices for his or her family and personal situation.” “Again,” she says, “I would introduce content gradually, and carefully, until the child is cognitively ready for the educational content presented on the screen.”
“The most important message here is the value of role-modelling by the parents,” says Dr. Denis Leduc, a Montreal-based pediatrician and Canadian Paediatric Society spokeperson. He suggests that parents watch
age-appropriate programs along with their child and take the opportunity to talk about what they see. However, “physical activity and reading should always take precedence over watching TV,” he cautions. “TV viewing should be regarded as an educational activity or opportunity and not as a babysitter.”
Freelance writer Yuki Hayashi watched six-plus hours of TV per day as a pre-teen and just isn’t that into it anymore.
* Names have been changed