TV Gets High Ratings

Explores the ability of toddlers in imitating what they see on television (TV). Average number of hours toddlers spend watching TV; Why children tend to be able to imitate live actions than actions from the TV.

By Rachel Barr, published March 1, 2000 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


Most people fret when they hear the statistics: On average, toddlers watch television for more than three hours every day. They can't seem to resist bright-colored space aliens and dinosaurs with lulling voices. But my colleagues and I have discovered that it may not be as bad as it seems.

Done right, TV-watching provides more than just lessons on being a couch potato.

In our recent study, 12-, 15- and 18-month-olds watched a video of an adult removing a mitten from a pink fuzzy hand puppet, shaking it to ring a bell inside and then putting it back on. A second group of babies watched a live adult perform the same actions. The next day, we gave each of them the puppet to see if they could copy the adults' actions.

While the children were able to imitate the live sequence of actions immediately, only the older babies were able to retain and perform what they had seen on the set. This indicates that babies' ability to imitate from TV lags behind their ability to imitate a live person. The reason is simple. When watching TV, children must first process the information they see and then make a major leap: Connect what they saw in the 2' x 2' box with real life.

But compared to the one-minute video we used during the experiment, kids watch the same show over and over again allowing plenty of time for learning. Moral of the story: Babies are picking up more than we think, so choose your TV programs wisely.

Adapted by Ph.D.