How Much TV Should Your Child Watch?

I was shocked to see people drugging their kids; orally and emotionally.”

If you’re like me, you fell prey to reading the dark, depressing book “What To Expect While You’re Expecting”.  This book should be retitled, “101 Ways Your Fetus Can Die In Your Womb” and it has caused many a woman to treat themselves like they’re fragile and unable to enjoy their pregnancies.  But I digress…

Nearly every pregnant woman reads scores of articles and all the most popular baby books while waiting for their little one to arrive.  (They especially read What To Expect…)  But did you notice that once baby arrives, all these books tend to be replaced with television, iPads, and cell phones?  And instead of reading to children, have you noticed that many mommies and daddies stick their children in front of screens before bed time instead of books?

Most mommies and daddies know how to treat a cough, diaper rash, and even teething pain. However, are we overlooking one of the most severe diseases to plague young children?  It doesn’t coincide with bruises, seizures or fevers.  It doesn’t bear as obvious a symptom as a rash or vomiting.

In fact, I became aware of this “disease” while researching infant travel while I was pregnant. I was looking simply for a way to entertain a child on a long, international flight.  My jaw dropped as I read the responses to my search.

The first comment I read was by a mother of three who said, “Don’t make it hard for yourself and your fellow airplane passengers; Dramamine and iPads are the way to go!”

Another said, “I don’t take a car trip without giving my little one a chocolaty treat and an iPad.” Her profile indicated that she had a 1 year old.

I also read from another mom: “Hotels are great! There’s no limit to the amount of movies and junk food in hotels and my daughters will stay glued for hours because it’s so fun to eat in bed while watching TV.”

After reading all these responses, I was actually kinda horrified.  I’ve personally referred to television as the ‘idiot box’ from a young age.  The only times I’ve allowed myself to veg for hours are when I’ve been actually too depressed to do anything else.  And I’ve always felt embarrassed to see other people veg for hours on end in front of the television when the world has so many sports to be played, paintings to paint, and books to read.

I don’t have a fussy child.  Wait, I lied.  I totally have a fussy child.  He’s fussy when I’m not giving him the comfort and attention he needs.  To me, travel isn’t about drugging my child and sitting him in front of an iPad so I can drink a latte with one hand and flip through People magazine with the other.  It’s about experiencing new things.  As a baby, new sounds, sights, and people were fascinating.  Now as a toddler he loves to explore everything in the world on foot.  I happily oblige his exploration.

Look, there’s nothing harder than being stuck in a moving aircraft or vehicle with a colicky baby. I get that. And to be frank, I might not hesitate to put a screen in front of my little one if he were really losing it on a plane. Thankfully I haven’t had to go there, but I have nothing but love for the mommies and daddies who have ever tried to calm a colicky baby on a plane or a public place.

My conviction leads me to believe, after many years of writing in health and wellness that sticking your child in front of a TV or iPad on a regular basis is not okay. TV, iPads, computers, and cell phones are miserable babysitters.

Yeah, sure, it’s nice to get a few minutes to yourself. But is it worth the cost of harming your child’s brain?

Psychology Today notes that children are becoming “wired and tired” as a result of increased screentime. Screentime is linked to making kids either prone to rages, or conversely, more depressed and apathetic. As they get older, these children are being medicated for depression, bipolar disorder, ADD, and ADHD. Research shows, that the problem may lie in screentime.

Experts believe that children who have been overexposed to screens suffer psychological damage.

After all, the child’s brain is still developing.  While the games are craftily designed to appeal to infant minds and tiny toddler fingers, their brains go into overdrive trying to process the pictures and flashing images before them.

The Effect of TV on Baby Brains

My son’s father and I disagree vehemently on the issue of screens and our son.  Sadly, so does much of the scientific community even though there have been over 4,000 studies on the affects of television and children[1].

There are a handful of powerful guidelines that John Medina, author of Brain Rules and Brain Rules for Baby, lays out.

For more research, please also pick up John’s book Brain Rules for Baby.  Over the next several paragraphs, I will quote several instances from that book.  You can pick it up for Kindle, Audible, or hard copy here.

Children Imitate What They See

I first heard this concept when I read Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay.  Children imitate what we say, what we do, and even how we do it.  Kids are perfectly like monkeys, aping what they see.

The other day I was at the library with my girlfriend Megan and her three children.  I was seated on the floor playing with Legos when her 7 year-old son looked up at me and said, “let’s build a meth truck!”  What?  I asked incredulously.  I tried to hide my surprise.  “What’s a meth truck?”  I asked innocently.  “It’s a truck where you do science”, he stated matter-of-factly.

I asked Megan later about it.  She said, “clearly he’s been watching YouTube videos he should be.  I’ll talk to him.

In Brain Rules For Baby, Medina highlights a study wherein a scientist gets a baby as young as 42 minutes to imitate him.  The science is clear: even infants love to imitate[2].

What’s more, they learn quickly what to imitate.  If you aren’t letting your child watch television, what is he or she observing from your television watching?  Science also suggests strongly that children do not have to be watching television to be affected by it[3].

Television Influences Our Perceptions of Reality

Television influences what babies think is reality.  The brain is eager to explain what we see.  That’s one of the reasons there are memes going around with images of common words that are misspelled, but that our brain fools us into seeing as properly spelled.  They’re often circulated on social media as a fun joke.  But it’s no joke: our brain fills in what it needs to in order to make sense of what we view.

Medina states, “your perception of reality is a handshake agreement between what your senses bring to your brain and what your brain thinks ought to be there[4].”

One Yale scientist experimented by having students create a sentence out of scrambled words.  He was surprised to see that students who had been exposed to words about aging and the elderly actually left the classroom slower than the other students.  They took almost 40% longer to walk down the hall and some even unconsciously hunched over and shuffled as they left.  This prompted Medina to state:

What you allow into your child’s brain influences his expectations about the world, which in turn influences not only what he is capable of perceiving but his very behavior[5].

How Much TV Do We Really Watch?

Here’s a statistic from A.C. Nielson Co. that makes me want to hurl.  The average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day.  That equates to 28 hours per week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year). A 65 year-old will have spent nine years glued to the boob tube[6].

Don’t read this before a nutritious meal, you’ll certainly lose your appetite.  However…

In America

  • 99% of American households have at least one TV (on average we have 2.24)
  • That TV is on an average of 6 hour and 47 minutes daily.
  • 66% of us suck down a side of television while eating dinner.
  • Assuming an average wage, the value of that TV time is $1.25 TRILLION
  • 59% of Americans can name The Three Stooges but only 17% can name at least 3 Supreme Court Justices

In Children

  • Approximately 4,000 studies have been performed examining TV’s effects on children
  • The average parent only spends 3.5 minutes weekly in meaningful conversation with his or her child.
  • The average child watches 1,680 minutes of TV per week.
  • 70% of daycares use TV every day
  • The average American child spends 900 hours in school but 1500 hours watching TV
  • He or she will see 8,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence on television by the time he finishes elementary school [8]

Don’t Allow A Child To Watch Any Television Before Age 2

The issue isn’t quite as hotly debated as it used to be.  Scientists generally agree that exposure to screens should be limited, and that television of any kind should be prohibited before age 2.

We’re not listening, though.  “Americans 2 years of age and older now spend an average of four hours and 49 minutes per day in front of the TV— 20 percent more than 10 years ago.[9]”

73% of children under age 6 watch TV daily and children under two receive on average 2 hours and 5 minutes of screen time daily.

The average American is exposed to about 100,000 words per day outside of work, with 45% of those coming from television.

A study done on bullying reveals that for each hour of TV watched by children under age 4, that child is 9% more likely to bully.  What’s more, The American Association of Pediatrics predicts that up to 20% of violence is likely due to violence seen on television.

Parents looking to give their child the biggest advantage in education should know that for each hour of TV watched by a child under 3, the risk of an attention disorder increases by 10%.  This means that a child who watches 3 hours of television daily has a 30% higher risk of attentional disorder.

But My Child Watches “Educational” Programming!

What about the Motzart Effect or educational programs?  Well, scientists at the University of Washington published research indicating that Baby Einstein DVD’s were not just useless, but likely harmful to children up to age 2.

Children exposed to Baby Einstein DVD’s comprehended an average of 6-8 fewer words than the average infant.  In 2009, Disney essentially recalled these programs by providing refunds to their customers[9].

If you fear your child is going to get a much worse deal if you don’t let them vedge out while you decompress, then make it an educational program like Dora The Explorer.  When he or she is done, try to use some of the words he or she has been exposed to (start requesting besos or call Gramma abuela), engaging with the child about what they’ve seen.

Also try to keep your kid physically active for the rest of the day, to an extent.  One of the worst things about television is that it doesn’t allow your little one to do what he or she wants to do most of all: get the wiggles out and explore!

Best of all, active children score higher on executive function tests than their more sedentary peers! [11]

4 Life-Altering Reasons to Avoid Screens With Your Child

1.  Screens emit dangerous light

My husband and I learned from a neurosurgeon and friend of ours that there’s an app that slowly stops your computer screen’s use of ‘blue light’ as the sun sets. It’s called “f.Lux” and it dulls the bright lights on our computers according to the sun, wherever we travel.

Why do we do this?

First of all, light from screens before bed has been linked to depression. What’s more, the light from screens prohibits melatonin production, which helps your body get a good night’s sleep. Screen lights mimic daytime, which causes your body’s clock to desynchronize, which can throw off your circadian rhythm (your body’s ability to know to sleep at night and be awake during the day).

If your child isn’t sleeping well, he or she isn’t fully processing everything you’ve learned together all day. What’s more, it makes the child more susceptible to sickness. Sleep is our body’s time to heal.

2.  Instant gratification is a drug

The instant-gratification nature of electronics increases dopamine, our body’s happiness chemical. Brain scans show that the brain reacts to these quick sensations similarly to cocaine use. What’s dangerous is that you get “hooked” on electronics much like cocaine. In fact, you lose your sensitivity to pleasure and need more and more stimulation for the same happiness chemical to be released in your brain.

3.  Screens stress us out.

Those bright, glaring screens can increase cortisol production and stress hormones. In addition, they overload the sensory system. Do you ever feel like your child is prone to erratic or explosive behavior? A possible answer is that they may be getting too much screen time. These screens, while seeming harmless, have been linked to depletion of our mental acuteness, leading to even the smallest requirement from our environment to seem like a huge one. If we have low mental energy we are prone to angry outburst, because this is one way our brain is able to reload mental energy.

4.  Nature is our way of mood and sleep regulation

The sun and fresh air all beget better moods and more melotonin production, which helps regulate our sleep, lower stress, and even ward off aggression. Dr. Victoria L. Dunckley says it best when she notes:

“In today’s world, it may seem crazy to restrict electronics so drastically. But when kids are struggling, we’re not doing them any favors by leaving electronics in place and hoping they can wind down by using electronics in ‘moderation’. It just doesn’t work. In contrast, by allowing the nervous system to return to a more natural state with a strict fast, we can take the first step in helping a child become calmer, stronger, and happier.[12]”

Some experts recommend an ‘electronics fast’ for children who have been overexposed to screens. This has shown to beget improved sleep, better moods, more physical activity, and even improved focus and motivation. (What? Kids will play outside if they aren’t in front of the television? Go figure…some things haven’t changed from when we were kids!)

Parents often use excuses such as, “my child sleeps fine and is exposed to screens all day,” or, “I don’t want my child to be behind the times when it comes to technology,” and, “I watched television/computers as a child and I turned out fine!” The reality is, television and screens, their graphics and lights are more stimulating than ever before. Researchers have found ways to squeeze more entertainment and even more education into children’s shows and games; but this has also made them fit to keep your child addicted to them even longer.

Overexposure to screens in young children, “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.”

What Doctors Say About Screens In Children

In an article for Psychology Today, Dr. Liraz Margalit notes that many studies actually link extended exposure to electronic media with delayed cognitive development. What’s more, the US Department of Health and Human Services has gathered data that suggests children may spend up to 7 hours per day in front of electronic media such as televisions and iPads.

Dr. Aric Sigman of the British Psychological Society and Fellow of Britain’s Royal Society of Medicine claims that overexposure to screens in young children, “is the very thing impeding the development of the abilities that parents are so eager to foster through the tablets. The ability to focus, to concentrate, to lend attention, to sense other people’s attitudes and communicate with them, to build a large vocabulary—all those abilities are harmed.”

Exposure to dangerous advertisements.

Ads are meant to tell us that we need what we don’t have or should be what we’re not. If you have a little girl, you could be an unwilling contributor to the eating disorder epidemic by allowing her to see advertisements or the glorification of models who are unlike normal society. Being a proud survivor of an eating disorder, I feel passionately about avoiding overexposure to advertisements in TV, movies, and magazines that give girls and boys unrealistic expectations for their own bodies. It is our job as parents to guard our little one’s eyes and hearts. He or she will have a lifetime of advertisements telling him or her she’s not good enough. Delay that as long as possible.

What’s more, your child is a mirror of YOU, as is expressed in the timeless and highly praised Parenting with Love and Logic. If you look in the mirror and say, “I look fat” or God forbid, “I can’t go anywhere when I’m this fat”, your child will develop disordered thinking or eating almost inevitably. In fourth grade I heard so many women around me complain that they were fat that I threw up breakfast one morning. I struggled for years after that to love my body and feel content looking in the mirror without the “demon voices” telling me I was too chubby, short, not pretty, etc.

Do your little one a favor and model self-love. If you can’t, then please seek a counselor before your self-criticism reflects onto your precious little impressionable baby. If you want somebody to talk to, reach out to a counselor or church worker.  Many church congregations even offer free counseling!

“But he’s just a baby…”

Just because your infant isn’t spending hours in front of addictive video games does not mean there isn’t some damage being done in his or her brain.

In fact, experts view ages 0-3 as the MOST critical time in brain development. Creatively, it’s referred to as the critical period. That’s because what happens during the critical period is the foundation that permanently paves the way for all future brain development. Every time your child sits in front of a screen, he or she is being deprived of the stimuli nature intended for your child to be exposed to. In short, he or she is missing out on ‘real world’ stimuli. Sadly, the deprivation isn’t limited to early childhood. It may indefinitely affect his or her mood, communication skills, and cognitive development.

Next time you’re tempted to reach for a tablet or television, try to find a way to play with Legos or read to your child. When I travel, I always bring a slew of books to read to my son. It may seem absurd when I can just “download” the books onto my phone, but my son is more engaged when he sees the images on the pages, turns them, and can flip through the books himself.

When my 18-month old godson used to swipe at his dad’s computer screen, my husband found it hilarious. It always puzzled me and never sat well. After all, this child was convinced that he could find what he wanted with something as easy as a swipe of his little fingers.

This resonates with my earlier observation about instant gratification. This child may have been getting a hit of dopamine by the instant gratification of the tablet swiping, but he may also get frustrated when he doesn’t get immediate responses from the real-world environment. They cannot tell us verbally, but we can certainly learn from their responses to the stimuli around them.

Murder Simulators & Killology

Have you ever heard of Killology? It’s a field of study invented in 1995 by Colonel David Grossman. He’s been a professor of psychology at West Point and War College.  Grossman founded the Killology Research Group and has been interviewed and called to speak on how to reduce violence in society, partucularly in the aftermath of violent episodes such as school shootings.

He noticed that fighters were having more problems with PTSD in Iraq & Afghanistan than in previous wars and linking this degradation to spending time at night on game consoles or online instead of actually discussing their thoughts and processing things with one another.  He’s written books such as “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning To Kill in War And Society”, “Stop Teaching Our Kids To Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence”,  and “On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace”.

In his second book “Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill”, he argues that techniques used to train soldiers are mirrored in violent video games.  These games harden children to things such as murder by simulating killing, particularly in first-person shooter games where the game controller us used as a weapon to defeat enemies.  He calls these “murder simulators”.

The Danger of Instant Gratification

One of the reasons screentime such as video games may be so harmful to an individual is due to the expectation of instant gratification in the real world. But internet surfing, social media, text messaging, and watching movies beget dopamine and condition your brain to expect that same response from the real world. Your brain is thus conditioned to the length of time between when you want something and when you get it through screens.

In the real world, when you don’t get instant gratification, the result may not only be a deficit of dopamine and serotonin in your brain, but your brain’s release of cortisol in response to that disappointment, or stress.

This is another reason pornography is so addictive in men and women, and why it makes “real sex” so dull, ordinary, and even impossible for the regular porn user. Porn provides “instant gratification” to the user. Having to romance, beguile, or please our partner is much more work than getting online and letting somebody else take care of things.

There’s a lot to process with all these things, but it is important to think about them and give honest assessment as to what impact screens may have on your life. How do they enhance your life? How do they diminish it?

3 Things You Can Do If Your Child has been Overexposed to Screens

For the child who has been overexposed to screens, the best things you can do are:

  1. Spend more time with your little one, face-to-face playing and engaging with new toys every day. This means exploring silverware drawers, reading books, visiting libraries or even thrift stores to ‘check out’ new toys.
  1. Do a “screen fast”. This doesn’t mean you won’t let him or her see screens until he’s in school. But it will mean severely limiting screentime to, perhaps, very special weekend treats. Beware: using screens to placate children during travel can backfire, causing sleep and mood regulation to become much more difficult!
  1. Lead by example. If your son or daughter sees you on your phone, iPad, or computer all day; he or she will want to do the same. According to research compiled by Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author and journalist, writes in The Tipping Point about how smoking is a learned behavior that comes on as more of a contagion than an individual’s unique decision.

Don’t allow screen addiction to be the disease your child catches from you. They truly ape and mimic everything you do, whether you like it or not! That’s one more reason to guard them from viewing unhealthy behaviors. Gladwell points out that it isn’t the smoking that’s cool, it’s the smoker. You can lecture your child until you’re blue in the face about the dangers of screens, smoking, or another reckless behavior; but he or she will most likely mimic precisely what she sees the ‘cool’ people do. And there’s nobody in her life cooler than you.

Limiting Screen Lights

It would be ridiculous of me to say that you and your children are never going to see screens. Let’s just admit it; it happens and will continue to happen. I’m even guilty of trying to snuggle up with my snookum on the couch while trying to catch up on an episode of Game of Thrones. He rejected the screen, but I gave it a fair shot. However I didn’t expose him to my traditional, factory-installed bright as day computer screen. I have an interesting after-market hack on my computer that makes it just a wee bit safer to view after dark.

You surely recognize the ghoulish blue glow that screens emit in dark rooms. But did you ever know that screens are actually designed to look like the sun? After sundown, this isn’t what our eyes are supposed to be looking at. That’s why my husband and I use f.lux on our computer screens. It causes your screen to synchronize it’s brightness to the time of day. At night it emits a soft, orange-hued glow and in the daytime it looks bright and high-contrast.

Don’t stay up too late because your computer’s light is wreaking havoc on your body’s clock. Through f.lux, my husband, me, and many of our friends get substantially better sleep. Download it free for Mac users at https://justgetflux.com/.


Read more:

[1]  https://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html

[2]  http://ilabs.washington.edu/meltzoff/pdf/99Meltzoff_BornToLearn.pdf

[3] http://www.urbanchildinstitute.org/articles/policy-briefs/infants-toddlers-and-television

[4]  Medina, John. Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (pp. 142-143). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]  Medina, John. Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (pp. 142-143). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.

[6]  https://www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html

[7]  Medina, John. Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (pp. 143-144). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.

[8]  Compiled by TV-Free America 1322 18th Street, NW Washington, DC 20036

[9]  Medina, John. Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (pp. 145-146). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.

[10]  Medina, John. Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (pp. 143-144). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.

[11]  Medina, John. Brain Rules for Baby (Updated and Expanded): How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five (pp. 149-150). Pear Press. Kindle Edition.

[12]  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mental-wealth/201508/screentime-is-making-kids-moody-crazy-and-lazy

 

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