The Hamilton Spectator - House Calls Column
November 3, 2011
Olaf Kraus de Camargo
Q: Often, turning on the television is the only way that I can calm or distract my two-year-old daughter when she's upset. Is it OK to let her watch TV?
A: For many parents, television is considered a "safe" activity for their children while they prepare dinner or do household chores. Some use television as a quick solution to calm an upset child or to distract combating siblings. Since many television shows are described as educational, it's easy to assume that it will do more good than harm. But, studies show that heavy use of television before the age of two can actually be detrimental to a child's development. This is a scary thought given that, on average, children under the age of two watch about one to two hours of television per day.
Young children learn by processing information they take in using all their senses. Watching and hearing what's being presented on a screen will usually not be enough. However, if the event that's depicted on a television screen is presented to the child in the real world, it's more likely that the child will retain information from the experience. This is because children store information based on pleasurable, emotional experiences that include physical contact and interaction. In a live setting, a child is able to feel the emotional bond to another human being, touch and manipulate objects, focus closely on the movements of the mouth, listen to the sounds of speech, and associate all of this input. So, naturally, time spent one-on-one with your child is much more beneficial than any time they might spend watching television.
The first few years of a child's life are the most significant in terms of his or her development. It's not only the quality of the time with your young child that counts but quantity, as well. Young children learn crucial life skills, such as speech and language, from observing and interacting with their parents and from repeating actions, interactions and observations over and over. When these valuable opportunities are replaced with media consumption, children become less engaged with their environment and can suffer significant developmental consequences as a result. Some studies have found that children under two who watch television frequently can suffer language delays, and research also suggests a link between heavy television use and attention problems in school-aged children.
The best way to help foster a healthy media diet for your child is to keep in mind that your own media habits can affect your child's. Do you have a television in your bedroom? Do you keep the television on for "background noise" while preparing dinner? You can easily curb your family's media habits by replacing media use with activities that allow for interactive, two-way communication between adult and child. You and your child will both benefit from the added time spent together.
House Calls is written weekly by experts at Hamilton Health Sciences. Dr. Olaf Kraus de Camargo is a developmental pediatrician and associate professor with the Department of Pediatrics at McMaster Children's Hospital.