Is it really THAT bad for babies and toddlers to watch television?

Oliver's time in front of the box.
Oliver’s time in front of the box.


Recently I have noticed that a lot of people have been discussing how watching television affects their children.


As a parent of a child under the age of two and with another on the way, I have become particularly interested in how watching television affects babies and toddlers in several aspects of their development, including their language, social and cognitive development. So I set about reading a lot of studies on the subject and what I discovered was rather alarming.


I discovered that existing evidence suggests that watching television has strong negative effects on language skills among babies, with the strongest negative effects being among 8 – 16 month olds. It is strongly suggested that television is too loud and fast paced, making it difficult for babies to process and causing it to be over stimulating and disruptive to a baby’s play. Existing research also showed that for every hour of TV watched by a child under the age of 3, the likelihood of an attentional problem by age 7 increased by up to 10%.


A study undertaken by the University of Washington in 2009, found that for every hour a baby watched TV – regardless of what was actually being watched on television – the baby heard 770 fewer words, conversations between parent and baby decreased by 15% and the overall vocalisations the baby made, such as babbling, talking and making noise decreased as well.


In my quest to find out more I approached the ‘American Academy of Pediatrics’, where I was put into contact with Ari Brown, MD, Chair of the AAP Working Group on Media and Children, paediatrician, and author of the Baby 411 book series.


Brown explained that children under the age of two do not understand what it is they are actually watching, as children of this age group learn best from real people, real things and two way communication. Children of this age group that watch television tend to have less time in social interaction and have less talk time, which leads to delayed language development. In fact when the television is on ‘talk time’ goes down by as much as 85%. This lack of interaction not only affects a child’s language skills but can also have a huge effect on a child’s emerging social skills.


While many parents say they only allow their child limited screen time so they can get things done, such as answering emails, cooking dinner and other household chores, it appears there is a better alternative. Brown explains that a child could partake in independent, unstructured playtime while their parent is busy, which is known to have deep developmental benefits and means the parent is more likely to engage in conversation while they are doing something else and the child is playing on the floor nearby. Even if the television is on in the background, it distracts babies from play. A child who is playing with their toys in a room where the television is on, will look up every 60 seconds to glance at the screen and get less involved in the playing they are doing.


However, despite all of this evidence there is a developmental shift that can happen between 18 – 30 months where children become more able to understand the content when watching television. With some research showing that some television time between the ages of three and five can actually help reading scores.


As a parent to a child under the age of two, I can safely say that banning all television time is slightly unrealistic, especially when either ourselves or our children are feeling slightly under the weather. I personally feel that if you feel like you need those 10 minutes in the day to have a break and a cup of tea, some television time won’t be too detrimental. In fact I sometimes put ‘Baby TV’ on the television in our room for ten minutes in the morning, just so I can get those all-important extra ten minutes in bed and to be honest one Sunday morning in a blue moon, I’ll even stretch to putting on Nick Jr for an hour while we eat breakfast in our pyjamas, especially when Mr. C has worked every day of the week for nearly a month.


As long as we interact with our children regularly, engage them in activities, read to them and allow them to have independent play, a little of screen time won’t harm them too much as long as it is limited. In our household we tend to stick to a limit of 60 – 90 minutes of screen time a week for Oliver, which works really well for us. People often comment on how well Oliver can entertain himself playing with toys, while I have a cup of tea with my friends or do the day to day household chores. Although I think that is partly down to his personality, I also think a large majority of that is because he hasn’t been allowed to rely on other sources of entertainment and so that is all he knows.


As with all things parenting related though, when it comes to time in front of the box, you know what works best for you and your children and as I said before, sometimes it’s a great tool for when us parents just need a bit of a break.


I’d love to know what your thoughts are on television time? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, Instagram and on Facebook.

9 thoughts

  1. This is really interesting. Zach was never really a fan of TV – it would be on and he’d enjoy the music intros but beyond that he’d barely watch it and would much prefer to play. This is still the case now but he does watch it more, especially sooty! I do try and stick to the more educational cbeebies programmes and there are things that he has learned by watching these- for example he learnt at two that eggs come from chickens, milk come from cows and the twirly woos taught him what connected means. I think that television like this can be hugely beneficial and as long as it isn’t on continuously and you are paying attention to them throughout, even just questioning about what they are seeing, a lot can be learned from TV. As long as they aren’t sat in front of Pepper pig all day!!!

  2. Thank you for this post. The Daisy used to have television time. Her screen time is limited now she watches it approx two hours a week. She’s home educated and believe me, the easiest thing for me as a parent would be to turn the tv on. The Daisy really absorbs into what she’s watching. She does have a kindle that she uses daily this too is limited as we have other fun stuff to do. She turns it off herself so is almost self regulated with that. I don’t watch much tv myself so I find that helps x

  3. This is interesting and a point on which my partner and I differ hugely. I parent with minimal TV, and much more reading and play, whereas he prefers our boys to sit quietly and watch TV.
    I’m not sure the evidence you’ve gathered will convince him to change but it confirms to me I’m doing it right!

  4. We probably watch too much TV to be honest but he’s in creche 5 times a week 9-5 with no screen and playing all day. At home then the TV is on for 2 hours daily.
    Let him play in the room is not good enough as he’d be running all over the place. With TV on I get things done.

  5. I think nowadays TV shows for babies are very well prepared for them and they are educative, so as a long as, they don’t spend all they without moving and just watching TV, I don’t see the damage 🙂 x

  6. I think nowadays TV shows for babies are very well prepared for them and they are educative, so as a long as, they don’t spend all they without moving and just watching TV, I don’t see the damage🙂 x

  7. Interesting. I didn’t allow any TV for the first year, but that’s easier with a first child I think. To be honest I don’t think he’d have been interested anyway. During the second year I did introduce the odd 10 minutes here and there, but after that he’d get bored anyway.

  8. As a childminder the TV is only on during the chill out time for no more than half an hour. It really does distract their play

  9. I think it’s fine in moderation. I honestly don’t know how I’d get a cup of tea or cook dinner without it. My eldest hasn’t learnt lots of things from watching certain programmes like other languages and counting x

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