TV or no TV? (And When?)

Choosing if and when to introduce your child to television is a tough process. At 19 months of age, despite my efforts to minimize screen time, our son has been exposed to TV. Have you introduced your child to television? Why or why not? Here are some the issues that we faced.

The TV began with a Long-Haul Flight

T and I fly a lot, I not as much as he, but we fly at least several times a year. L has already flown internationally. This wasn’t too big of an issue up until L was about 13-14 months old. He would sleep peacefully during flights, was easy to hold onto by his strong mama. I remember being on a flight within India when during a flight landing – after what felt like an eternity of the child crying and squirming to be let go – a mother let go of her daughter and let her start to run down the aisle. I sat in horror and grabbed the mom’s arm to have her get the child back, and thought, Wow, this mom has no control of her child. I can’t believe that she can’t keep her relaxed an occupied and that the child wants to run down the aisle. L will never do that.

And then we began to fly with our toddler. And let me tell you – turning from baby to toddler makes all the difference. No longer are they fully comfortable and secure in your lap. Secure, maybe, but comfortable? Decidedly not. En contraire: the claustrophobia – and feeling miles away from freedom to run – sets in within about 5 minutes of being on the airplane. And it isn’t comfy for mom and dad either. Whereas I used to just set L in my lap, allow him to nurse and let both of us drift off to sleep, instead I have this squirmy wormy boy who just wants to go and meet everyone on the plane. . . .which works at times, but one can’t spend the entire flight hiking up and down the aisle. They make planes smaller and smaller these days, you know.

So on our most recent long flight (classified as anything over 3 hours for me), I decided to cave in and load up the iPad. All those films that I had long been saving (including Walt Disney’s The Complete Goofy and Mary Poppins) have digitized versions now on my iPad. Then I awaited for the insane moment when, at my wits end, I could pop on the iPad and let L drift into the zone of TV zombiehood for a little while.

Fortunately, this worked like a charm during the flight. From the first Goofy cartoon I played, L was hooked. “Doofy! Doofy!” he called out! And while the insanity of five hours flight had set him abuzz with frustration, all of a sudden he was calm and happily engrossed in this little cartoon dog.

But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?

Can you identify the parent toys among the baby toys?

Now that L knew “Doofy,” he began to ask for Doofy on a nearly daily basis. All of a sudden he knew “Teewee” and would gesture to the remote control and ask us for a “movie.” And one day when T and I were feeling pretty ill and asking each other, “Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to sit down an watch a movie?” it took all but a few seconds for L to pipe in with “Movie? Movie!  Doofy doofy! May-wee Pottits!” How does he know this stuff already? Barely has he watched 8 or 9 Goofy cartoons in his lifetime and maybe 30 minutes of Mary Poppins and suddenly he knew what it is to watch all aspects of visual media. I guess it doesn’t help that my dad occasionally puts on CNN and MSNBC with my little one watching, or even the “Oyimpits” of 3 weeks ago. Boy, did it happen fast.

AAP Recommendations on the Introduction of Television

If you’ve read AAP recommendations you probably already know by now that, despite our staunch dedication to minimize TV for our little toddler, T and I have jumped the gun again when considering when to introduce it. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that no child be exposed to “screen time” when under the age of two. If you have let your children watch some form of TV at this age, however, you are not alone – approximately 90% of children in this age group watch TV on a regular basis.  Many parents tell me that they are justified in their choice to have children watch television because they are showing educational programs, but the evidence seen by the AAP – and my personal experience with my son – is that children do not learn much from watching television at this age.  Yes, maybe they can identify animals here and there, or enjoy songs, but they cannot appreciate a television plot and, thus, probably do not benefit from a 30 to 60-minute program.  Unfortunately, the concepts shown in shows even like Sesame Street are intended for older audiences, usually at least 3 years of age, to fully understand the plot lines. Children learn best from unstructured play and interaction with others – adults, other children, and by playing pretend. And I have already experienced firsthand the dubious peace of having my son turn into a zombie in front of the television. It is calming but a little scary.

All this being said, I have found that television does have a time and a place in our household, and a few minutes here and there can be an effective sanity saver(no more than twenty minutes, which is about the limit of a toddler’s attention span when watching something).  Fortunately, the time-tested Goofy cartoons which I know and love are about 6-8 minutes apiece. So L gets to watch LOTS (i.e. 2-3 cartoons) of Doofy and feels quite satisfied. Last week when T and I were down with a horrible viral infection, it helped to be able to turn on the television for a few minutes of Doofy here and there so that we could clear our foggy heads. Here are some tips on incorporating “screen time” safely into your child’s life.

      1. Keep it to a Minimum: Overall, screen time should be kept as low as possible – I would recommend less than 30 minutes a day of screen time. Really, use it minimally only if absolutely needed – to keep you sane when you are trying to cook dinner, when you are at your wits end and need to read an article or go to the bathroom for a few minutes. For L, screen time ends up being about 15-20 minutes every other day. He eventually gets to “watch” the programs he wants to – a bit of Disney cartoons here and there, and we focus on it being music or humor-heavy.
      2. Watch TV in short blocks of time: Brief cartoons are ideal for this as they fit into a toddler’s attention span, which is less than 20 minutes. Definitely avoid putting your toddler in front of the TV for a two-hour movie – this is way beyond the limits of the attention span or what minimal exposure can be considered acceptable. Chances are he/she won’t have any idea of what is going on, and will more often than not be sitting and staring blankly at that screen. Zombie-baby is a scary sight!
      3. Always watch programs with your child: Having a child has made me all the more cognizant of what content is out there on television and how difficult it is to screen programs. Several “children’s” shows look really scary and violent to me and are so jarring in their screen transitions, I can’t imagine letting L watch them. I’m not a fan of the Spongebob/Ren and Stimpy style of animated cartoons – too fast moving and frenetic.  Know what your child is watching and make sure you agree with whatever it is.  Also, remember that vulgarities and violent situations can pop up suddenly on television. While flipping through channels the other day I saw some cooking shows. What’s the harm with “Kitchen Nightmares?” I thought, now that the bulk of the show is over and they are about to present the finished restaurant – well I thought too soon when before my eyes within seconds a Jerry Springer-esque fight broke out among cast members on the show and the swear words spewed. Good think L wasn’t at home to accidentally get exposure to this show.  Always keep a close eye on what is happening – even the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies got scary with some of the violent characters that popped up; not exactly what I wanted my 18-month-old to see.
      4. Avoid background Television (and background computer/phone): Zombie mama and daddy are just as distasteful as zombie baby.  Having the TV on in the background is a terrible conversation interrupter and may lead you to spend your time mostly watching TV and only intermittently interacting with your child. Avoid having background television on and you may surprise yourself by the beautiful music you hear from you and your children singing songs together, you may love the quiet (as I d0) and then will tire when you go to other people’s homes where you hear constant TV in the background. There’s a lovely song by Lisa Atkinson called “Turn off the TV” that beautifully illustrates everything you can do once you turn off the TV!

Here are some additional articles with tips and tricks on incorporating screen time in your child’s life:

Yahoo Article on Television Introduction

Introducing TV to Kids – A Blog Entry

When to Introduce A Smartphone or Tablet

Breaking the TV Habit


2 thoughts on “TV or no TV? (And When?)”

  1. I’ve been fascinated to read my friends’ relatives’ responses to this post and did not realize that it could cause so much uproar. Discussion is always good, though! Interesting how the discussions about so many topics garner some or no discussion, yet the idea of exposing a child to TV is so polarizing. My entire point in this posting is not to embrace television or screen time, but I also want to be real here. I can’t villify it because, well, my child has watched television. I’m human and so are you, and if you have to introduce television at some point, know that I understand having had to go through the decision. Just make sure that you keep it a decision and not something that happens without you thinking about it. So many households remain complacent with excessive TV watching and treat it as something that simply “is.” It is not, in fact. Watching TV should always be a conscious choice and not a simple fact of your background life.

  2. – This is an interesting commentary on guiding parents on television viewing in their children. New way of thinking!

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