Watching TV: The early years


Good ol’ Sesame Street

Like all babies, Frances loves screen time.  She will ask to watch the same video of herself ad nauseum, even if there is nothing going on.  She’s not in the habit of watching shows, but I’m sure she’d like to.  This got me thinking, just how bad is screen time for one-year-olds?  What are other pre-toddlers watching, and how much time are they spending in front of the TV?

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) published the most widely cited study in 2003, and I wasn’t able to find a lot of new research. The first iPad wasn’t even released until 2010. I didn’t even have a smart phone back in 2003. Perhaps it’s time for a newer study.

Some of the information seems pretty accurate, like the fact that most children begin watching TV at 9 months old. But that 52% of kids under 1 watch, on average, 2.5 hours a day? Well, the KFF said so in 2003. They also said 60% of one-year-olds watch 3 hours a day, and 71% of two-year-olds watch the same amount.  Considering most of these kids are only awake 12 hours a day, that’s a good portion of their lives.

Here are some guidelines I gleaned from my readings:

Since sometimes screen time can’t be avoided, it’s best to stick with educational material. Shows (and apps) that prompt the viewer to respond can slightly increase vocabulary (whereas other shows decrease it). The best thing, apparently, is to watch the show (or play the game) with the child. Of course, doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of having a few minutes of time to yourself? If you’re going to sit down with a kid and interact, you might as well read her a book.

If your kids are watching TV, stick to programs with a positive message. 81% of parents have seen their children imitate behavior they see on TV. This goes for both positive (sharing, helping) and negative (hitting, kicking) behavior. Try and avoid fast-paced shows that can over stimulate a child’s brain, since this over-stimulation can lead to attention-deficit problems in the long run. Instead, choose shows where characters treat each other with respect, solve problems and are slow paced.

Among all the articles I read, I enjoyed Farhad Manjoo’s take on screen time on Slate the best. As long as your baby is spending plenty of time playing with objects in the real world, reading books, interacting with people and playing outside, 30 minutes of educational programming isn’t going to have any negative long-term effects.

What’s the screen time policy at your house? What shows do your kids watch that don’t make you feel (too) guilty?


  1. Megan Landers says:

    When Brekken was young I happened to get 2 channels on the TV, both of which were PBS stations. I was pretty liberal with the Sesame Street type programs as far as amount of time, but I watched with him and it was time we spent learning to count and colors, etc. Partly, I think I watched because I was nostalgic for Mr. Rogers and The Count 🙂 But I did limit the time of what I always call junk TV – no TV except for in the morning and nothing with commercials. I was afraid of the commercials more than most of the programming, although what passes for kids’ shows these days is almost frightening!

  2. Michele says:

    Megan, I, too am most afraid of the commercials. They are insidious!

  3. I also don’t let the kids watch commercials and never have. They repeat verbatim the few they have seen during my husband’s football games and ESPN watching…I don’t even want to think about what would happen if I let them see a bunch of toy and sugar cereal commercials.

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