Is television watching really that harmful?

The Impact of Television on Early Childhood Brain Development

by Carly Seifert

As you walk by the television and hear Elmo singing songs about the number four to your toddler, it can be tempting to disregard all the fuss about too much television. After all, isn't your two-year-old learning so much from his furry friend? But the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cautions against early and excessive television watching for good reason: too much TV early in life has been linked to developmental delays, attention problems and lower academic performance.

Early Experiences Matter

Between birth and age two, the brain actually triples in size--more rapidly than at any other time in a person's life. The brain has all the neurons it will ever have when a child is born, but the connections between the brain's neurons are formed based on a child's early experiences. It is important to make sure these early experiences are worthwhile and beneficial to your child's growth and development. Engaging in pretend play, coloring, spending time outdoors or visiting the zoo are experiences that help your child's brain form these important connections as they observe and participate in life in the "real world".


Though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against screen time before age 2, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington, says that most children are introduced to the television around four months of age. But when a leisurely field trip to the farm in kindergarten fails to mimic the fast-paced one a child saw on a television program, behavior and attention difficulties often result. When a child so young is exposed to the rapid image changes that come with early childhood TV programs, this can lead to ongoing struggles with ADD or ADHD later in life.

Reading and Language

A study done in 2002 by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that children who had the television on frequently were less likely to read at all during the day, and if they did, they read for a shorter period of time than those with limited TV exposure, often resulting in low reading scores later in life. Having the television on also takes the place of families having conversations, which can lead to language delays in little ones. Language development happens best when a child has a conversation with an adult...not with Dora. The language and speaking a child hears from the television happens too quickly for a budding speaker to reap any type of real benefits. In contrast, when adults talk with toddlers, they often speak at a slower pace while looking directly at the child. This helps builds the child's confidence about speaking, while the slower pace helps the child's brain to process the sounds being made and expand her vocabulary. An adult can also ask questions that give children the opportunity to develop ideas and opinions as they answer.

More Important Work

Regardless of the negative effects of television on a child's developing brain, perhaps one of the lurking and most real dangers in watching too much TV (or watching TV before age two) is that it is replacing time in the "real world." The time a toddler spends watching cartoons could be better spent playing at the park, building with blocks or interacting with family. These activities are what ultimately provide the most benefits to a youngster's developing brain.

About the Author

Carly Seifert has been a piano instructor since 2001. She has also covered adoption and introducing children to the arts for "Montana Parent Magazine." Seifert graduated from University of California, Irvine with a Bachelor of Arts in drama.

Photo Credits

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