Effects of television on young children’s learning and development

In today’s world, children have unprecedented access to media and technology. As most parents will attest, young children are drawn to, adept at, and perhaps even addicted to the TV/videos, mobile/cell phones, and iPads and other tablets available to them in their homes and from the adults around them. This week, over two posts, I am summarizing some of the research on the effects of children’s exposure to media and technology on their development and learning. In today’s post, I will focus on the effects of television and other screen media on young children’s learning and development. In my next post, I will focus on the effects of ‘educational’ videos and DVDs such as ‘Baby Einstein’.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Preschool children watch an average of 4 to 5 hours of television each day (Christakis et al., 2013). In addition, the average American child between the ages of 8 months and 8 years is exposed to almost four hours of background television per day (Lapierre, Piotrowski, & Linebarger, 2012).

What are the effects of all of this exposure to television for children and families? Does the age of the child matter? Are some types of media programmes better than others?

What does the research say about the effects of television and other screen media on young children’s learning and development?

Cognitive effects

Age 2 and under

  1. Television watching in very young children is associated with slightly lower cognitive outcomes in later years. The more TV children watch before the age of 3, the worse they perform in reading recognition, reading comprehension, and digit span memory at the age of 6 or 7 years (Zimmerman & Christakis, 2005).
  2. Under the age of 2 years, TV watching (even watching educational shows such as Sesame Street) has been found to be associated with negative effects on language development (Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007; Linebarger & Walker, 2005).
  3. Different types of TV shows have different effects on language development. For example, one study has found that that certain TV programmes, which use explicit strategies to promote language in children, are associated with greater vocabulary and expressive language in infants and toddlers (Linebarger & Walker, 2005). More research is needed in this area.

Age 3 and up

  1. Different types of TV shows have different effects on preschool children’s cognitive functions. For example, watching high-paced cartoons can negatively affect preschool-aged children’s performance on tasks requiring executive functions (Lillard & Peterson, 2011).

Two good reviews of the research on cognitive effects of television watching can be found here: Christakis (2008) and here: Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011).

Social, emotional, & behavioural effects

Age 2 and under

  1. Early television viewing is related to later attention and behaviour problems. TV watching at the age of 1-3 years is associated with greater hyperactivity at the age of 7 years (Christakis et al., 2004).
  2. Even background television has been found to have negative effects on both children’s and parents’ attention and behaviour. Background television reduces the length of children’s engagement in their play, as well as their focus on their play, even when they don’t seem to be paying overt attention to the television (Schmdit et al., 2008). Moreover, when television is on in the background, parents are less attentive, responsive, and interactive with their children (Kirkorian et al., 2009).

Age 3 and up

  1. The more a child watches TV in early childhood, or the more background TV is on in the child’s household, the more likely they are to exhibit aggressive behaviour (Manganello & Taylor, 2009). Hours spent watching television in early childhood are also associated with more aggressive behaviour later in adolescence and adulthood (Johnson et al., 2002).
  2. Different types of shows may have different effects on preschoolers’ social competence and behaviour. For example,  watching TV shows which promote prosocial behaviour such as empathy and cooperation is associated with better social competence and behaviour than watching TV shows which promote aggression and violence (Christakis et al., 2013).

Physical health effects

  1. Greater amount of time spent watching TV in early childhood is linked to greater likelihood of obesity in later childhood and adulthood. (See here for a review of this research.)

So, to sum it up, there is a lot of research indicating that generally, for children aged 2 years and younger, there are adverse cognitive, behavioural, and physical health effects associated with television watching in early childhood. However, there is some research beginning to emerge that at least effects on language development may vary according to different TV programmes. Above the age of 3, findings are more mixed. Indeed, both the Canadian Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics discourage the use of television and other media in children under the age of 2, and recommend limits on both the time and the content of televison programmes that children are exposed to after the age of 2.

It seems that the best approach to take is to limit children’s screen time, and if/when they do watch TV, to carefully examine the shows they watch for how they promote thinking, language development, and prosocial behaviour.

What are your thoughts? Please share comments and other relevant research on young children watching television in the comments section below.

Stay tuned for my next post which will review research on the effects of educational videos and DVDs such as ‘Baby Einstein’.

Sadaf Shallwani

Update (May 6, 2013): Check out this TEDx talk in which Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics  (whose research is mentioned in this post), summarizes current research on how television and other screen media affect young children’s developing brains – with lifelong consequences.

See related posts:

4 thoughts on “Effects of television on young children’s learning and development

  1. I am posting this while Sana is watching TV in the other room. We try to limit her to an hour, ideally not every day, though the iPad slips in there from time to time. General question: how much of those studies controlled for other factors like pre-school, time spent reading, other home-environment factors and what they are watching? I don’t dispute the broad-strokes conclusion, but if you have 100 apples and 1,000 oranges, statistically you have 1,100 oranges.

    • Hi Mark! As far as I know, most if not all of the correlational studies controlled for potentially confounding variables such as parent education, home environment, parent-child interactions, child cognitive competence, etc.

      With regards to what they were watching — it does seem that there is some research that certain types of shows might be associated with better effects on children’s outcomes (or less worse effects). However, these research findings have not been strong enough yet to convince many of the experts in the field, including the AAP, to encourage any type of TV watching in children under the age of 2. For children over the age of 2, both the CPS and AAP recommend limits on both the quantity and type of TV content children are exposed to…

      If you’re curious about what types of shows have been found to be associated with better outcomes… Some research suggests that shows like Dora and Blues Clues seem to be associated with better outcomes than say Teletubbies (see the Linebarger and Walker study mentioned above).. Other research suggests there may be negative effects for children associated with shows like Spongebob (lower cognitive performance) and Power Rangers (more aggression)… I haven’t read all of these studies, just articles about them – I can send you links if you’re interested..

      It’s much more complicated than the broad-strokes conclusions, I agree!

      🙂

  2. most of the researcher have been looking only on the impacts of children over viewing tv but they have not suggest what to be done so that to avoid this effects to our children

    • HI there,

      Thanks for your comment. Most researchers suggest what I have written in bold above:

      It seems that the best approach to take is to limit children’s screen time, and if/when they do watch TV, to carefully examine the shows they watch for how they promote thinking, language development, and prosocial behaviour.

      So, until the age of 2, avoid TV/videos altogether – even in the background (e.g., if you’re watching and your child is in the same room, even if they are not watching). For age 3 and up, limit it to half an hour per day or maybe maximum an hour for older children. And be careful about which kinds of TV shows/videos your child watches. Look for shows which promote positive social skills and language development. And most importantly, watch with your child and discuss the programme with your child.

      Hope that helps!
      Sadaf

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