Recent studies on the effects of TV on children have painted it as a harmful device that contributes to childhood obesity, sleep disruption and even the likelihood of junior becoming a playground bully.
What’s more, it’s suggested that watching the goggle box could seriously delay our babies’ grasp of language and communication. So, should we be switching off for good?
According to the results of a survey conducted by speech and communications specialist Jean Gross, the amount of time children spend in front of the TV might cause speech delays. Regardless of whether or not children are watching the programme, Gross says the very fact it’s on at all has an impact on communication in the home.
“Research shows that if a set is on in the background, the amount an adult talks to a young child falls away to almost nothing,” she explains. “This talking is so crucial to a young child’s language development. A toddler learns to talk by hearing words and practising them, often with one familiar adult.”
Nothing is better for early childhood language acquisition than the infant’s imitation of spoken words by caregivers. Research has shown that TV reduces the number of language sounds and words babies hear, vocalise and, therefore, learn.
Studies have found that for every hour of audible TV, children not only spoke less and heard fewer adult words, but adults spoke less (around 500 to 1,000 fewer words a day), too. Adult words are almost completely eliminated when television is audible to the child. So, whether it’s on in the background or actively being watched, television interferes with communication.
However, not all academics agree that TV is harmful. When used correctly, screen time can be entertaining and informative, even part of a greater creative process. For example, if you’re watching a kids’ cookery programme together, you can follow it up with some actual baking. This turns TV from a passive activity for your little one into something you do together or even a springboard for something else.
The makers of specially-tailored TV programmes insist their content is supported by solid academic research. For instance, CBeebies programmes like Teletubbies and In the Night Garden are backed up by years of study on linguistics and how children use and form words.
However much we worry about the effect TV is having on our children, there’s no denying it is part of everyday life for most families. The experts agree that, in moderation, TV is okay.
To stop kids watching television altogether would be unrealistic and extreme, but if at all possible, it’s wise to limit the TV-watching of a child under 2 to no more than half an hour per day. Older children can watch slightly more, Lascelles says, but 60 minutes per day is a good benchmark for 3- to 5-year-olds.
If you do have concerns, you should seek advice as soon as possible. “From the age of 3, children are able to engage in television by themselves, to make sense of what is being said and even benefit, learning about words, numbers and the outside world,” says Dr Martin Ward-Platt, a consultant paediatrician.
However, those under 2 can’t make head nor tail of the information being thrown at them. They need an adult to explain what is going on, which makes watching together essential.