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Infant Couch Potatoes

Does media help or hurt infants?

*First author is Elise Murray

In a world full of technology, it’s hard to keep up with the constant evolution of television, computer and other media devices. iPads are becoming mini, desktop computers are a thing of the past, as is a home phone number. And as media changes, and the way we encounter it, so does the rest of the world, and the way we conduct everyday life, incorporating such devices to make ourselves smarter, faster, or maybe a little more relaxed due to their benefits of use. The tricky part, though, is figuring out who this technology really benefits and when.

A huge market of education electronics has emerged, claiming to enhance the learning abilities of children, and parents have quite literally bought into this idea, purchasing all kinds of electronic media, whose manufacturers purport significant increases in academic performance in product users.

But when we see the word “children” in these reports, what exactly does that mean? Is there a difference between setting infants in front of the television with Baby Einstein while six year olds watch Sesame Street? Due to product popularity, we might be inclined to think not…but then we would be wrong.

“Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014).

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is a trusted resource of information on many things, like child immunizations. But amidst all the new technology, AAP’s recommendation for media exposure seems to have been lost. The AAP recommends that children under the age of two should have no exposure to electronic media (Tomopoulos et al, 2010). None. No T.V., no iPads, no cell phones, nothing.

Why this recommendation? Dimitri Christakis, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington (2009), explained the recommendation. The brain goes through incredible amounts of change and growth during the first two years of life (the mass almost triples). Media exposure, Christakis suggests, interferes with this development, and as research suggests, may hinder cognitive growth.

It might be good to first look back at the development of electronic media usage over time, specifically amongst children. In 1971, the average starting age for watching television was four years old, while today it is five months old; today, over 90% of children begin to watch television regularly before the age of two (Christakis, 2009).

This trend of exposing younger and younger children to electronic media most likely started around 1997, when Baby Einstein started to emerge as a popular item amongst parents. What’s maybe more interesting is that a 2007 survey (Vanderwater et al.) that 20% of those two years old and younger have a T.V. in their room, and 75% of children from the ages of 0 to 6 years old watch, on average, an hour and twenty minutes of T.V. a day. All of this exposure seems to have effects on the development of infants, which, in turn, have long-term consequences.

Several psychological studies have been conducted, testing the effects of media exposure on infant cognitive and language development. Soultana Tomopoulos and colleagues (2010) conducted a longitudinal study with six month olds, tracking their media exposure and cognitive and language development over eight months (1). The duration of media exposure at six months was negatively associated with cognitive and language development at 14 months. That is to say, in comparison to infants with lower exposure, infants exposed to more electronic media had worse cognitive and language performance at fourteen months. In fact, Tomopoulos and colleagues (2010) found that exposure to adult-oriented or older-child-oriented media had negative effects on cognitive development. Cognitive development was impaired. This could be seen as a possible issue in the current rise in ADHD and ADD diagnoses in younger children. Christakis (2009) noted a modest association between ADHD at age 7 and T.V-viewing before age 3. But this still leaves the question of the efficacy of infant directed media hanging.

In the same study by Tomopoulos (2010), he and his fellow researchers found that “young child oriented media” (e.g. Baby Einstein) did not significantly predict any outcome of development in infants! This seems to debunk the myth that Baby Einstein and infant videos of the sort are beneficial in the learning process for babies. (Disney, who bought the Baby Einstein company, seemed to acknowledge this when they circumvented a lawsuit about the non-educational effects by giving parents refunds. See here.)

What is best for baby? Human interaction and social learning. In a famous study by Patricia Kuhl et al (2003), babies learned language best when interacting with someone who responded to the baby in real time (i.e. a real person). Those watching DVDs and recordings did not help babies measurably improve their language skills.

Kuhl’s study seems to get at the truly beneficial learning experience for infants: you! Parents, friends, people! Researchers, like Tomopoulos, suggest that media doesn’t seem to benefit children’s development until about age 3, when exposing them to shows like Sesame street and Dora the Explorer facilitate numbers learning. However, some argue that focusing on “left-brain” tasks like numbers and reading are detrimental in the long run because early childhood maturationally is a time for “right-brain” learning. That is, children should be engaged in whole-body, social learning, rather than school-like learning. An individual child will guide adults on when they are ready to learn to read-write-‘rithmetic, which takes some kids till age 7 or 9.

Here are suggestions of how to live a less media-enriched life with an infant.

Turn off the media—the tablets, phones, T.V., computer and play with your baby. Infants need to be immersed in face-to-face time of social signaling. This is their chance to develop social procedural knowledge that will guide them throughout life. Spend happy times together making up stories and games, even when they are very young. Colywn Trevarthen shows how babies are ready to communicate from birth. They are ready to play with parents. Infants want to be socially engaged, and if the T.V. is on, the sounds, colors, and movement can distract them from real play they might do on their own, with toys or people (Schmidt, 2008).

Help the baby feel successful in getting your full attention, disconnecting and reconnecting. Attend to when the baby signals s/he has had enough and needs a break (respect that).

Spend time in eye contact—nothing is more intimate! It builds the right hemisphere as it rapidly lays down self-regulatory systems. Again, follow the cues of the child but start early so that the child is used to it. Low eye contact is now considered a signal for autism.

Increase your child’s social (face-to-face) enjoyment. Remember that your baby’s brain is continuously laying down concepts and skills from experience. So find things that make your baby smile and laugh to build the positive emotional networks. Avoid things that distress the baby as that practice also builds easily-triggered negative emotions.

As the baby grows older, practice shared attention (joint attention). Follow where their attention is fixed, not where you want them to look, and build on that interest. Encourage their pointing, repeat what the item might be, or get the child to interact with what has piqued their interest. Using this kind of interaction with children actually has been shown to expand children’s vocabulary over time, in a more effective way than other ways of engaging an infant with objects (Tomasello, 1986).

It’s hard to avoid electronic media and technology in this day and age but remember that it is better for an infant to not be exposed to electronic media (before age 3). Making a home or environment less electronically based can not only improve cognitive development in an infant, it can benefit the adults—creating ways to enjoy each other will help the family’s wellbeing.


(1) Cognitive development was measured with the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (social-emotional, adaptive behavior subtests) (Bayley, 2006), and language development was measured by the Preschool Language Scale, which assesses language skills from birth to 6 years old (Zimmerman & Castilleja, 2005).

Works Cited

Bayley, N. (2006). Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development® 3rd Edition (Bayley-III®). The Psychological Corporation, San Antonio, TX.

Christakis, D. A. (2009). The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what should we learn?. Acta Paediatrica, 98(1), 8-16.

Kuhl PK, Tsao FM, Liu HM. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci, 100, 9096–101.

MacBeth TM. The impact of television: a natural experiment in three communities. Orlando: Academic Press, 1986.

American Academy of Pediatrics (2014). Media and Children. Downloaded on March 30, 2014, from:

Schmidt, M. E., Pempek, T. A., Kirkorian, H. L., Lund, A. F., & Anderson, D. R. (2008). The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child development, 79(4), 1137-1151.

Tomasello, M., & Farrar, M. J. (1986). Joint attention and early language. Child development, 57(6), 1454-1463.

Tomopoulos, S., Dreyer, B. P., Berkule, S., Fierman, A. H., Brockmeyer, C., & Mendelsohn, A. L. (2010). Infant media exposure and toddler development. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 164(12), 1105.

Vandewater EA, Rideout VJ, Wartella EA, Huang X, Lee JH, Shim MS. (2007). Digital childhood: electronic media and technology use among infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Pediatrics, 119, 1006–15.

Zimmerman, I. L., & Castilleja, N. F. (2005). The role of a language scale for infant and preschool assessment. Mental retardation and developmental disabilities research reviews, 11(3), 238-246.

*Elise Murray is a student at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA.


1 Happiness and Growth Through Play

2 Playing with Heart

3 Children May Be Playing, But Their Brains Are Working

4 Is Pretend Play Good For Kids?

5 Playing at School: More Important Than We Thought?

6 Does Too Much Screen Time Make Kids Sick?

7 Infant Couch Potatoes

8 What's Better: Indoor or Outdoor Play?

9 Why Play with a Child?

9 Parent-Child Play