Babes in TV land: Not tuned in, after all

Turn it off! Limit it! Do everything you can to keep your children's consumption of television to the bare minimum! We parents hear this message all year long, and this week, during Turnoff Week, the drums will beat especially loudly.

What we seldom get is research-based advice about when to turn on the TV.

The Kaiser Family Foundation says that 53 percent of families with children 6 and under have the set on at least half the time they're home. Yet parents are mostly in the dark about what our kids, especially the youngest, can actually understand. We think that as long as we expose them to "good," educational programming and public television, we're ensuring their positive development.

It's not so simple. We assume our children can make sense of what they watch. We forget that huge cognitive leaps occur between the ages of 1 and 7. Researchers, it turns out, doubt that a 1-year-old can even make sense of the sequence of information on the screen, let alone pick up the wholesome messages in "Sesame Street." There's almost no evidence that children under 5 pick up on the moral lessons in "VeggieTales" or the supposedly character-building themes of many Disney movies.


In a recent study at the University of Wisconsin, kindergarteners watched a 10-minute episode of PBS' "Clifford the Big Red Dog" in which Clifford and his friends interact with a three-legged dog. At first, the characters fear the dog, worry that they might get sick from being around him and treat him as if he's different. After the dog tells them he just wants to be friends, everyone becomes pals.

Most of the children showed no sign of having extracted the lesson of tolerance for those with disabilities. Some got the opposite message. One child told researchers he learned that "you should be careful ... not to get sick, not to get germs." Children seemed to zoom in on the negative parts of the story and forget the positive ending.

Studies have shown that around age 2, children can learn words from video if an on-screen character pointedly teaches new vocabulary by, say, holding up an acorn and saying, "Here's an acorn!" When words and dialogue have no connection to what's appearing on screen, the meaning probably goes over children's heads. Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Street vice president for education and research, says that show isn't designed to be comprehensible to children younger than 2.

When shows fit the cognitive demands of specific ages, children can certainly benefit. Studies from Yale University have shown that 2- and 3-year-olds who watched "Barney" gained more social and academic skills than children who didn't. Three- to 5-year-old children who watch "Blue's Clues" have shown gains in tests of critical thinking skills over children who've never seen the show.


Finding good programming for young children is about looking for features such as repetition and routine that help a child remember the story and message, and avoiding programs with characters that kick, punch or push each other around, actions that young children will often imitate. It's about finding shows that don't dwell on conflict, fear or anxiety, and that give more than short shrift to finding answers or resolution.

In our household, we're holding off on most Disney videos until our two girls, 4 and 6, are out of kindergarten. We rely, for example, on "Elmo's World" at age 2, "Dora the Explorer" at age 3 and "Pinky Dinky Doo" at 4. We sit down with them to try out new shows. "You thought what?" we'll say afterward. If a program was poorly designed, we're apt to get an "I dunno." When one works, our daughters bubble forth with descriptions, get inspired to make new things or play "pretend" versions of what they saw.

As children grow up in a multimedia whirlwind, parents, TV producers and educators alike will have to be aware of what they actually absorb when the screen lights up.

Lisa Guernsey is the author of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age Five." Her e-mail address is:


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