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’.
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?
Age 2 and under
- 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).
- 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).
- 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
- 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
- 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).
- 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
- 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).
- 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
- 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’.
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.