Turn Off That TV

Children and the mass media

The Real Reason Why TV Is Bad for the Kids

TV viewing compared to book reading reduces mother-child communication

"Books are good for children."  "TV is bad for children."  Everyone seems to know this.  In the same way that we know that we should be eating lots of fruits and vegetables and limiting sweets, we all know that kids should spend a lot of time with books and relatively little time with TV. 

But why?  Can't kids learn just as much from TV as they do from books?  There is no doubt that TV can be educational.  But one of the unforeseen consequences of TV viewing is reducing how much parents talk with their children.  And diminished parent-child interaction can have negative effects on children, especially when they are young.

In a recent study of toddlers and preschoolers, we observed mothers and their children while they read books, watched a prosocial TV program, or played with toys.  We found TV viewing suppressed both the amount and quality of mother-child communication.  That is, moms made relatively few comments to their children while co-viewing.  When they did speak, their comments were often unrelated to what their child said, thereby creating an unproductive exchange that could hinder children's opportunity for learning.

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Moms who read books to their children, however, not only talked significantly more but also used a very high-quality form of communication that included asking questions, labeling objects, affirming their child, and responding to their child's statements or questions with relevant information.  It is important to note that the increased quantity and quality of communication was not due to the fact that moms were reading the words on the pages.  Instead, this difference reflected the communication that occurred above and beyond the actual reading that the mother did with the child.

Playing with toys also elicited a high amount of communication, including some high-quality forms of interaction.  Although not better than books, toy playing was significantly better than shared TV viewing at encouraging communication. 

With these results in mind, let's consider the child who spends a good chunk of the day watching TV.  From this perspective, the problem is not necessarily what content, either good or bad, the child has experienced (of course content does make a difference too).  Instead, the problem is what this child is missing.  Young children who watch lots of TV may be missing out on valuable - even crucial - interactions with parents during a critical point in their development.  Parent-child interaction, even with children who can't yet speak, is vital to children's healthy development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics just released their updated TV guidelines for children ages 2 and under.  In their statement, they discourage all TV viewing for children in this age group.  Part of the justification for their recommendation is that TV viewing reduces parent-child communication. 

Some parents may believe that they can't offer their children the kinds of educational experiences that TV provides.  But they are wrong.  Children learn the best from real people, especially people who are important to them.  When parents talk with their children, they not only promote their language development but also teach their children that they are valued and important.  Reading books and turning off the TV can facilitate these positive interactions.

 

Amy Nathanson, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Ohio State University School of Communication.

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