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Rebecca Chicot PhD
Child development expert with a Phd from Cambridge University. She has worked on several best-selling books and BBC documentaries. She is the proud mother of three children.
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Stage 6 – preschool

Should my toddler watch television?

Television is a very new technology in human history and so developmental psychologists have raised concerns about how it might impact the development of children's language and emotions.
In Short
Scientific studies of children have reported that too much television can lead to decreased levels of attention and focus, problems in school, sleep disturbance, obesity and other eating disorders.

Set rules around watching TV and other devices. For example – no TVs in the bedroom, not being allowed to watch for 2 hours before bedtime, no watching TV during mealtimes.

Make sure that the material they are watching is age appropriate and adult programmes are not viewed when they're around.

Never use the TV as a reward or punishment.

Don’t leave the TV on all day in the background.

Most importantly, make lots of time for play and conversations between you and your toddler.

Broadcast television has changed out of all recognition from when programmes for young children were first produced. All those moons ago there were no children’s channels such as CBeebies, no breakfast television, no cable television, no videos, no DVDs, no television on demand and no YouTube. Instead, there were a few ‘Watch with Mother’ type programmes that were shown for a short period of time each day with programmes such as ‘Finger Mouse,’ ‘Play School’ and ‘Sesame Street.’

In most people’s homes today it is possible to instantly find and select a television programme that your toddler will like to watch from children’s programming, family films and cartoons. The rare times that children today watch a scheduled, broadcast programme they cannot understand why they have to wait a week for the next episode. They are used to the concept of 24 hour television and instant gratification.

It can be very tempting to take advantage of this wall-to-wall access, so if your toddler won’t sleep or you need to get something done or you want her to sit still and eat – TV, the ultimate convenient babysitter, is there ready and waiting. I say this not as disapproving ‘expert’ but as a parent who has also struggled in my relationship with toddler TV.

What do the researchers say?

Several scientific studies of children have reported that too much television and screens can lead to increased levels of attention problems, problems in school, sleep disturbance, obesity and other eating disorders.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out in 2011 with a stark recommendation that babies and toddlers under the age of two should not watch any television. This was a ‘better safe than sorry’ recommendation and they said…

Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children age 2 or younger.

This was a conclusion they came to due to the fact that a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first critical years and interacting with other people and physical play is better for optimal development than television. For children older than 2 years the AAP recommends no more than 1-2 hours per day of what they term ‘high-quality’ content. These include programmes that have been designed with child development in mind e.g., ‘Teletubbies,’ ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘In The Night Garden’ and ‘Something Special.’

A recent study examined how a parent’s use of language changed when television was on in the background. The researchers reported that the quantity of both words and phrases and the number of new words used by parents dropped significantly when the TV was on.

This is important as we know that the quality and quantity of conversation between parents and toddlers drives language development. Indeed one of the studies authors concluded,

Our new results, along with past research finding negative effects of background TV on young children’s play and parent-child interaction, provide evidence that adult-directed TV content should be avoided for infants and toddlers whenever possible. Although it is impractical and probably not desirable for parents to play with their young child all of the time, children do benefit greatly from active involvement by parents during play. Ideally, parents should play with their child without the distraction of TV in the background.
Tiffany Pempek PhD, Hollins University, Virginia, USA.
Setting a good example with technology

It is important to be firm with yourself and your toddler when it comes to screen time. If the rules are specific it makes it easier to enforce them and much easier for your toddler to accept them.

So, if you choose to let your toddler watch any television my suggestions would be:

  • No televisions in bedrooms (that includes laptops streaming on-demand TV channels).
  • No television two hours before bedtime (to promote natural melatonin production which the blue light of televisions inhibits).
  • No watching television during meals, try to get into the habit of your children eating at a table.
  • Watch programmes with your toddler (this helps to make a shared experience).
  • Stick to television programmes that are well made and designed for younger viewers with low edit cuts and lots of audience participation e.g., Mr Tumble.
  • Don’t use television as either a reward or punishment.
  • Try to schedule in special family activities, e.g., a walk on Sunday morning or a game of snap on a Friday afternoon.

As a parent of a toddler you probably feel like flopping in front of the television after a long day – or even after an exhausting outing. However, it’s worth remembering that toddlers look to their parents and model your behaviour, so if you drop litter, they will drop litter; if you swear, they will swear. The good news is that having a toddler around is the perfect time to reassess some of our own bad habits.

Some bad television habits that you might want to rethink include:

  • Having the television on all day as background noise.
  • Ignoring your toddler’s needs because you want to get through a box set, yes they are addictive…try to be strong.
  • Having loud, adult television programmes on when toddlers are up and about.
  • Having a television in your room (sleep scientists say it is better for your sleep and cognitive functioning to keep all bedrooms television free).
  • Endless channel surfing instead of planned viewing e.g., all assembling for the weekend rerun as a family to watch e.g., ‘The Great British Bake Off,” can be a lovely, fun, shared event.
Alternatives to television

Toddlers do not tend to get bored so don’t worry that you need to offer her television to fill in her day. Your toddler will be more engaged and happy spending time with you chatting, dancing, reading books, helping with jobs around the house e.g., putting clean clothes into a pile for each family member or playing pairs with the socks. The technology we are allowing our toddlers to use is very young and it’s hard to know the impact long term, let alone how technology will change over the coming years. As a parent, you need to protect your toddler from harm and help her interact with technology in a positive and life-enhancing way.

References and further reading

American Academy of Pediatrics (2011) ‘Policy Statement – Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years’ PEDIATRICS Vol. 128 No. 5 November 1, 2011 pp. 1040 -1045 (doi: 10.1542/peds.2011-1753)

Plowman L (2015) Researching young children’s everyday uses of technology in the family home. Interacting with Computers, 27 (1) 36-46.

Sigman (2005) ‘Remotely Controlled: How television is damaging our lives’ Vermilion

Tiffany A. Pempek, Heather L. Kirkorian, Daniel R. Anderson. The Effects of Background Television on The Quantity and Quality of Child-directed Speech by Parents. Journal of Children and Media, 2014; DOI:10.1080/17482798.2014.920715

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This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Essential Parent has used all reasonable care in compiling the information from leading experts and institutions but makes no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details click here.