Can TV now hurt a baby’s chance of later success in school?

Michael Rich, MD
Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Last week Rich answered a question about kids being addicted to cell phones. This week he discusses a recent study that indicated children who watch too much TV as toddlers could face health and school problems later on in life.

TV as teacher, TV as companion, TV as babysitter. Nearly half of all children under age 2 watch TV and 41 percent of preschoolers exceed expert recommendations for TV time. We have all done it – to help our children learn the ABCs or just to buy some time to make them dinner. But we have felt uneasy about it. In the short term, it gets the job done, but in the long term, does it help our babies or harm them?

Research shows that parents are evenly split on their opinions of the effects of TV on children – 1/3 think it helps, 1/3 says no difference, 1/3 think it hurts them. Now we have some solid evidence to guide our decision-making.  A new study from Canada followed 1,314 children from the age of 5 months to 10 years, looking at their TV viewing at ages 2½ and 4½ years and seeing where they were physically, emotionally and academically at 10 years old. What they found was concerning. For each hour of TV watched at 2½, there were increases in consumption of soft drinks (9 percent) and snacks (10 percent), decreases in physical activities (9 percent) and weekend sports (13 percent) and increases in body mass index (5 percent).There were emotional repercussions, as well – children were 10 percent more likely to be victimized by classmates for each hour of toddler TV.

Finally, 10-year-olds showed a 6 percent decrease in math achievement and 7 percent decrease in classroom engagement for each hour of TV at 2½. While these outcomes are usually attributed to multiple influences, researchers controlled for many known factors and TV viewing still had an independent effect.

Cute kid watching tvIt must be noted, however, that other studies show TV content matters. Compared to children who watch entertainment programming, preschoolers who watch limited amounts of developmentally appropriate programming are more prepared on entering school and demonstrate higher academic achievement right through high school. While parents’ uneasiness about their toddlers and preschoolers watching TV appears well-founded in the increased risks to physical, psychological and academic well-being, viewing one or two hours of quality educational programming daily after the age of 2 may be okay.