Do kids in daycare watch more TV than kids who stay home?

Michael Rich, MD, MPH, is Children’s Hospital Boston’s media expert and director of Children’s Center on Media and Child Health. Take a look at his blog archive or follow him on Twitter @CMCH_Boston. Last week he weighed in on whether nonverbal cartoons encouraged more creativity from the viewer than regular ones, this week he looks at whether or not kids watch too much TV while at daycare.

Michael Rich, MD, MPH

Q: I went back to work recently, so now my daughter goes to day care for several hours after preschool. I recently read that kids in day care are watching more TV than kids who aren’t in day care. Should I be concerned about the amount of TV my child is seeing? If so, what can I say to my day care provider about it?

Screen Surprised in Westchester, NY

A: Dear Surprised,

What you probably heard are the results of a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics. The researchers looked at three groups of children to learn more about how much TV they watched. This is what they found:

  • Kids in home-based childcare (for example with an aunt or grandmother) watched 5.6 hours of TV per day. 1.8 of those hours were while the child was being cared for by someone other than the parents and 3.8 of those hours were while the child was being cared for by a parent.
  • Kids who attended a childcare center watched 3.2 hours of TV per day.  .1 of those hours were while the child was at the center, and 3.1 of the hours were while the child was being cared for by a parent.
  • Kids who were cared for by a parent all day watched 4.4 hours of TV per daily.

So what you heard about kids in daycare watching more TV than others is true when it’s a home-based childcare situation, but not when the children are at a childcare center.  Children who were in childcare centers in fact watched the least amount of television among the three groups!  It’s not surprising that of these three groups, it’s the one supervised by people with the most training in child development that sets the strictest limits on screen exposure.

Another thing to take away from this study is that we should also all be paying attention to the amount of time kids are watching TV while they are with a parent. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines for media use discourage children under the age of 2 from receiving any screen time at all, and they encourage parents and caregivers to limit screen time for kids over 2 (including preschoolers) to 1-2 hours per day.

So why are the numbers in this study so high? Because TV is such a constant presence in our lives that it’s almost invisible to most people. Parents and child care providers may leave the TV on in the background, put it on for the kids so they can get a much-needed break, or even have them watch with the specific goal of learning—after all, educational programming does indeed have merit. But even the most effective shows are designed for a specific age, and if the viewer is younger or older than intended, the show’s benefits are limited. Likewise, too much time spent with even the best programs will take away from other important developmental tasks in your child’s life like engaging in creative play, taking part in physical activity, eating healthy meals, and spending time with family.

For these reasons, just as you discuss what foods your day care providers give to your child, talk with them about the television shows that your child is exposed to while in their care. Emphasize your trust in their intentions as you ask what they have her watch, for how long, and what the intended viewing ages are for those shows. If you’re not comfortable with what you learn, discuss whether the provider can change these habits or, at the very least, whether your daughter can do something else during those screening times. Since the day care providers are acting in your place as your daughter’s nurturer during that portion of the day, it is both your right and your responsibility to discuss what she is viewing and whether their perspective on screen time is reflective—or at least respectful—of yours.

Enjoy your media and use it wisely,

The Mediatrician®