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Child Policy Experts Answer Your Questions about Baby Videos and Television

What does research tell us about media and outcomes for young children?

New media forms and seemingly contradictory research findings and news reports have made the topic of media and outcomes for young children both controversial and confusing. PPN visitors were given the opportunity to ask three leading child policy experts their questions on the topic of videos and television programming for children under two years old.  See the questions and answers below.

About the Experts

Dr. Rebecca Collins Dr. Michael Rich Dr. Roberta Schomburg
Dr. Rebecca Collins
Senior Behavioral Scientist
RAND Corporation
About this expert
Dr. Michael Rich
Founder and Director
Center on Media and Child Health 
Children's Hospital Boston
About this expert
Dr. Roberta Schomburg
Professor of Education
Carlow University, Pittsburgh
About this expert

Question Topics

Below is a list of the question topics that were submitted to our experts. Follow the links below to read a particular question and answer, or scroll down the page to read them all.

Are there physiological or neurological changes in young children who watch too much TV?

Can you explain the inconsistencies in the research findings?

Do harmful effects of TV diminish as children enter preschool/kindergarten age?

Is watching a music DVD more harmful than listening to a music CD?

Is it OK for my child to watch TV since it helps her learn English?

What do producers or broadcasters of children's programming have to say about this issue?

Some parents need TV to occupy their kids. What can be done to lessen the harmful effects?

Does TV impact children differently depending on their age, especially violent programming?

Are there parental factors that determine the outcome of exposure to TV?

Are there protective factors that limit the adverse impact?

Is there research associating TV and electronic games to violence?

Many programs that seem to be educational are sponsored by grants from the Department of Education and No Child Left Behind, so why do researchers say that television is bad?

Is it bad for my toddlers to be in the same room when I'm watching the news?

Questions and Answers

Does the research show that there are actual physiological or neurological changes in young children who watch too much TV?

Rebecca Collins: Some researchers argue that early television exposure can cause neurological changes in young children, but there is no evidence of this right now. Because the brain is developing quickly at this stage of life and because this development is influenced by the kinds of experiences infants and toddlers have, it's reasonable to speculate that watching television might alter the way the brain develops, just as any frequent activity might. However, getting concrete evidence that shows this to be the case would be difficult. Currently, we have only very indirect evidence that comes from associations between viewing hours early in life and attention problems later. And even that association is a tenuous one. A relationship hasn't always been found, and we canít be sure that television viewing caused the changes we see, much less that it did so by altering the way the brain functions.

Michael Rich: At this point, the research in early brain development is very new and efforts to investigate physiologic and neurologic functions are limited by both research technology and ethics. Functional MRIs, which allow us to see blood flow that serves as a proxy for brain function, are the only noninvasive method we can use now, and study subjects need to be completely still during the process. Parents of newborns are understandably reluctant to let their infants be strapped down, let alone undergo injections or surgery to look at physiologic or neurologic brain functions. However, we do have a growing body of evidence that exposure to screen media, even products that claim to make your baby smarter, are associated with delays in language development, attention problems, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and obesity. Given that there is no evidence linking screen media to any positive outcomes in young children, even the limited evidence we have of potential harm would lead reasonable parents to err on the side of protecting their infants.

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Some of the research seems to suggest that there can be positive benefits of children's TV while other research says it's harmful. Can you resolve these seemingly inconsistent findings?

Rebecca Collins: What effect watching television has on children almost certainly depends on what children watch, what children would be doing if they weren't watching, and whether what children see on television is reinforced in their environments. If children are watching only programs designed to stimulate their creativity, teach them new concepts, and act responsibly, then TV will probably have a positive effect. Especially if parents talk with them about the programs and point out how what they see in programs relates to things in their daily lives. But if children watch programming that has little value and they spend a lot of time doing so, it keeps them from imaginative play, from interacting with their parents, and from getting exercise, all of which are important to positive development.

Michael Rich: Children's TV, like all media, is not inherently good or bad, it can be either. Programming developed on solid educational principles and directed to the appropriate developmental stage can accelerate or improve specific types of learning, such as vocabulary building or pro-social skills. Other shows, even well-intentioned ones, have been found to have no effect or, worse, to be associated with cognitive or educational delays. Unfortunately, television producers and advertisers have discovered that calling a product "educational" needs no proof and increases its marketability, so that label is plastered rather indiscriminately on a wide variety of fare. Good content can teach valuable skills; bad content or too much of any content can distract from or dampen learning. The trick is to know the difference. Look for material that won't scare or confuse kids. It should include characters or people with whom kids can bond and require active participation, thought, problem-solving, and responses.

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Although the studies seem to indicate some evidence for both positive and negative impacts on children, is it possible that some of these effects diminish as children enter preschool/kindergarten age?

Rebecca Collins: We really don't know how long the positive and negative impacts of television viewing might last, or whether kids can outgrow any vulnerability/openness they have to television's influence. Some effects of television almost certainly depend on developmental stage. For example, youth under age 8 are more susceptible to advertising and more frightened by certain images they see. But we also know that early influences on children can set the stage for later life. So if television watching gets children off to a good start, they are probably more likely to stay ahead of their peers later.

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As a mother of a 14-month old, I have started to turn on occasional children's TV or children's music DVDs, despite hesitating because of the recommendation against screen time. My question is: if she enjoys music, and the DVDs simply add a visual element to the music she enjoys (dances to, and smiles at, etc.), is it more adverse to her development than simply listening to a music CD?

Michael Rich: At 14 months, your child is right in the middle of the most rapid brain development of her life. The first two years of life offer a unique window of development during which the brain triples in volume, building neural networks in response to demands on the brain, while pruning away unused neural networks. We know that three types of stimuli optimize what happens in brain development: interacting with others, manipulating the physical environment, and engaging in open-ended, creative play. While listening to music on a CD allows any or all these stimuli to occur, watching visuals to the same music effectively replaces the stimuli with passive attention to predigested images. Think of your child's brain as a muscle that gets stronger with exercise and atrophies with passivity. Play the CD and sing, move, imagine, and play with your daughter. Toss the DVD, your child's brain deserves better.

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My child is trying to learn English and TV seems to help. Is it okay for her to watch TV?

Roberta Schomburg: The production staff from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood has received many letters from adults who say they used the show to learn English. But the question is how useful TV is in teaching children English. When adults or announcers are speaking very clearly and looking directly at the screen, children may feel that the person is speaking to them. This experience might encourage children to view this as a conversation.

However, while this experience may be valuable in helping children learn vocabulary, there are some concerns that parents should be aware of. One is the content of the communication. Sometimes, children are attracted to the faces and clear speech of newscasters who may be talking about events that could be upsetting to children. Other types of programming that can attract the attention of young children are programs such as soap operas, where the conversations are full of emotion and the actorsí faces communicate strong feelings. Here again, the content of the program is not suitable for young children. A second concern is the appeal that commercials may have on young children, who are not fully able to understand the nature of advertising and who, thus, may be especially vulnerable to the suggestions offered.

The bottom line is that it is critically important for parents to select appropriate programs. And, of course, no amount of screen time can take the place of face-to-face conversation with another person, where children learn not only vocabulary but also the communication skills of taking turns, response wait time, and other language conventions.

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What has the reaction been to recent research findings from producers or broadcasters of children's programming, both public and private?

Roberta Schomburg: One of the responses from producers of children's television has been to increase its focus on developing programming that supports children's learning skills. For example, PBS has developed several new programs, including Super Why and Word World, both of which are aimed at supporting children's early learning and at helping parents and children take advantage of its programming. Research has found that when parents and children watch television together, outcomes are better than when children watch television alone. Some producers are also developing materials for parents and caregivers and putting the materials on their Web sites. Such materials have important information about how children learn and suggestions for how adults can use television constructively in dealing with children.

Note that the FCC requires that commercial broadcasters air at least three hours of educational programming per week in order to obtain a broadcast license. However, there is debate about whether some broadcasters live up to the spirit of that law. For example, claiming that a cartoon such as "The Jetsons" teaches children about the future. Research by the Annenberg Public Policy Center argues that about one in five of the programs that commercial broadcasters designate as "educational" contains no educational content.

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Being realistic, I feel that parents will still allow their children to watch television despite the concerns they may have. In fact, many need to use TV to help keep their children safely occupied while they get something done. What can a concerned parent do to lessen the harmful effects of TV?

Roberta Schomburg: When parents are informed about the effects of television on children's development, they can make better choices about when and how to use television. They can set priorities and make a conscious decision to turn on the television and pay attention to the content their children will see. In particular, there may be times when parents feel that viewing television or a video is warranted, but informed parents will also be able to choose among other activities. Parents have always struggled to find ways to entertain children when they are busy, and there are options that can substitute for this electronic babysitter. For example, they can involve children in whatever activity they are doing, such as setting the table, helping to fold laundry, or using a soft cloth to help dust the furniture. Other options include providing a specific play space for children to engage in their own pretend play or providing activities and materials that are safe and interesting, such as using play dough at the table while an adult is cooking dinner.

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Are there differences in the impact of the television programs as related to the age of children, especially those TV programs with violence as the subject of the program?

Michael Rich: There are definite differences in the impact of all types of television content on children at different ages and developmental stages. After the age of 30 months, when children can reliably decode what they see on the TV screen, content becomes the most important feature of TV programming. A good rule of thumb is that they will learn what they see, so make sure what they see is what you want them to learn. Violence has been the best-studied area of media effects, and exposure to it has been reliably and consistently linked with fear and anxiety—especially in younger children—with desensitization to the suffering of others and, in a small group study, with increases in violent attitudes and behaviors. Long term, the children who watch violent TV function more poorly in school and have poorer grades than those who watch more developmentally appropriate programming. Parents play a critical role in determining the outcome of TV exposure. First, they can model and teach their children to use TV in thoughtful, directed ways, choosing age-appropriate programs that teach their children what they want them to learn and then turning the TV off when the programs are over. Second, parents can always insist that children watch TV where they can make sure that they are nearby to watch it with them and help children process confusing, difficult, or frightening content. Parents are a key protective factor in limiting adverse outcomes from TV watching.

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Are there parental factors that determine the outcome of exposure to TV programs?

Roberta Schomburg: One of the "protective" factors is the mediating role of parents. When parents view programs with children, they can do a number of things, including notice the impact that the program content has on their children; respond to questions, concerns, or anxieties that come up during the program; and think of related experiences to extend the learning experience after the television is turned off. Shared television experiences allow parents of young children to monitor what children are viewing and learn more about the types of programming that interest them. Such "intentional" use of television helps children to see that screen media is just another tool for learning—one that should be used judiciously, rather than as background noise in the environment.

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Are there protective factors that limit the adverse impact?

Roberta Schomburg: Other protective factors to limit adverse impacts all stem from the intentional use of television. These include turning on the TV when there is something specific to watch. Many parents find that choosing what to watch with their children is a great way to help them learn that television can be either educational or entertaining rather than just constant background noise. Talking with children about what they will be watching helps prepare them for the experience. And taking time to "debrief," talking to children about what they just saw and what they thought about it, can help to extend the television viewing experience and offset any negative perceptions children may have picked up.

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Is there research associating TV and electronic games to violence?

Michael Rich: There is a great deal of controversy about the relationship between violent media and behavior, because virtually everyone has an opinion and most sources provide only information consistent with their opinions. In an effort to give parents and all stakeholders a factual foundation to make informed media choices, Harvard's Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) has collected, validated, and made available all scientific research that has been conducted on violence or any aspect of the relationship between media and the physical, mental, and social health of children. The goal is to provide an unbiased resource for evidence on the positive and negative effects of media exposure. People can query the CMCH Database of Research (www.cmch.tv) in basic terms through Smart Search, with questions like "Will watching violent TV make my child violent?" The CMCH Web site also has parent pages and a free monthly e-newsletter that builds on the research to guide effective parenting in the media age.

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Many programs that seem to be educational, and make claims to that effect, are sponsored by grants from the Department of Education or No Child Left Behind. a) So why do researchers say that television is bad for kids? b) Is it just bad for some kids? c) Or just too much is bad?

Michael Rich: Unfortunately, very little of what claims to be educational television has been formally and rigorously evaluated for what it teaches and how well it actually teaches. Among programs that have been so evaluated, Blue's Clues, Arthur, and Clifford the Big Red Dog have demonstrated faster language acquisition among preschool viewers, while Barney, Teletubbies, and even Sesame Street have shown slower language acquisition among viewers than among children who do not watch these programs. Although news stories may imply it, researchers have not said that television is bad for kids; what they have said is that too much TV or the wrong TV content may be harmful. Think of watching TV as we think about eating food—consuming food is necessary, but consuming the wrong food or consuming too much of even healthy food may hurt people.

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Is it bad for my toddlers to be in the same room when I'm watching the news? They don't really watch the news.

Michael Rich: Research shows that even if they are not really watching television, toddlers are aware of, and distracted by, background TV. More specifically, their play can be disrupted, they may have shorter attention spans, and they may cling more to their parents. Toddlers' primitive alert reflex draws their attention to any image, sound, or tone of voice that might signify a threat. TV news is not subject to any rating system and the competition for viewers is intense, so stations will broadcast what grabs the most attention—"if it bleeds, it leads." Always assume that toddlers are absorbing what is on background TV and make your choices accordingly.

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Learn More

If you'd like to read more about this topic, please see our list of research resources with more information on the influence of media on young children.


PPN would like to thank Steven Martino, Ph.D. (Behavioral Scientist, RAND Corporation) and Anita Chandra, Ph.D. (Behavioral Scientist, RAND Corporation) for serving as peer reviewers for the content on this page.