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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Babies and TV: Why Not Have Them Watch?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has again spoken against screen entertainment for children under two. They made their first policy statement about this in 1999, and they haven’t changed their minds. You can see a discussion of their position and thinking at When TV first became available, the cautionary joke was that if you watched too much your eyes would become square; the AAP today is seriously cautioning that young children’s mental development can be slowed by exposure to this kind of stimulation.

Is there clear evidence that television, videos, and computer displays do interfere with cognitive development in the first years of life? No, as a matter of fact, the evidence is not very clear, because it’s very difficult to establish. Because the first principle of research on human beings is to do no harm, and because that principle is especially important for the study of the very young, no one is going to do a randomized controlled trial (experimental) study of the effect of screen-watching on intelligence and academic ability. We’re left with nonrandomized studies, in which babies who ordinarily watch screens a great deal are compared with those who watch little or no screen entertainment. But although such evidence should certainly be given some weight, it’s important to remember that it involves confounded variables-- a confusion between the effects of screen-watching itself and other characteristics of families who do or do not expose their young children to screen-watching experiences.

It seems unlikely that chance alone determines the amount of screen exposure young children get, because on the whole they depend on their caregivers to set up a program, turn a device on, etc. Parents do or don’t do these things because of their own beliefs, motives, needs, and understanding of their children’s needs, and those beliefs and so on will also impact other aspects of their caregiving. For instance, parents who are exhausted or overwhelmed by problems may be more likely to want their children to be distracted and to leave the adults alone, but they may also talk to and look at the children less or be more irritable and difficult to communicate with. Parents whose poverty keeps them cooped up in a small apartment with their children, and whose dangerous neighborhood discourages them from going outside, may find screen-watching a lifesaver, but their children’s development may also be influenced by living in a poor and frightening place. When these children with a history of extensive screen-watching do poorly in school, we can’t know which of these factors really caused the problem-- or indeed whether it was caused by all the factors working together.

Nevertheless, all the major thinking of the last century about early mental development has emphasized the idea that children under the age of two are active rather than passive learners. They can learn some things by watching other people, but on the whole their understanding of the world develops through activity and interaction with the environment. They learn, for instance, that an object still exists when it’s hidden from view, and they learn this by crawling, reaching, grabbing, and mouthing objects, not just by observation (and certainly not by instruction).

Jean Piaget, the great Swiss theorist of cognitive development from birth into adulthood, referred to the period from birth to two years as the “sensorimotor” stage. He used this term to describe what he believed was the essential nature of early learning-- that it was based on a combination of information from the senses and from movement. He considered that toward the end of this stage toddlers became capable of symbolic thought and no longer were forced to learn solely through sensorimotor means, but that human beings continue throughout life to have a capacity for sensorimotor learning. Piaget’s theory of early development was based on a small number of direct observations of young children, and more recent work suggests that infants can learn some things by observation much earlier than Piaget believed. Nevertheless, it is a generally accepted idea among developmentalists that combined sensory and motor experience plays the major role in the early learning which forms a foundation for later school success. This view strongly suggests that much exposure to screen-watching will take away time from the needed sensorimotor experience from which young children learn most. The problem is not what screen-watching causes to happen, but what necessary experiences it interferes with.

A more recent thinker, the late Stanley Greenspan, the outstanding child psychiatrist and developmental theorist who founded Floortime/DIR as a treatment for autism and other problems, added an important concept to Piaget’s view of sensorimotor learning. Greenspan saw the senses and movement as essential to early learning, but in addition he emphasized that the most effective learning involved multisensory stimulation. In order to learn efficiently and to be interested, babies need to have a variety of senses stimulated at the same time-- not just vision, but hearing, touch, taste and smell, and movement senses of various kinds. What is most likely to provide excellent multisensory stimulation? It’s interaction with an interested, affectionate, engaged adult. That adult is not planning to give some planned form of instruction or purposely “teach” the baby, but because he or she is attentive and involved, whatever happens next helps the baby learn.

The affectionate caregiver provides the baby with two essential conditions for good learning. One is a combination of sensory experiences-- the warmth of touch, the rhythms of movement, the visual interest of facial expressions and eye positions, and speech or other sounds like humming and tongue-clicking. These are combined with each other into patterns that are more than the sum of their parts, as voice sounds follow the same rhythm as facial expressions and touch changes together with the movement of the adult body. These patterns offer powerful forms of sensory stimulation which draw the intense interest of the baby. In addition, the adult’s movements, speech, and gaze can all be instantly modulated in response to what the baby responds to-- what Greenspan, in talking about slightly older children, called “following the child’s lead”. The interested, caring adult provides multisensory stimulation that engages the baby’s interest and maintains it in ways impossible for any screen that offers entertainment to the passive baby. When babies spend much of their time in screen-watching, the opportunities for multisensory stimulation are limited.

There are other issues about screen entertainment or similar stimulation. One is that infants and toddlers have not yet achieved good control over attention (most of us are never perfect on this point). Where there is a great deal of noise or activity, young children find it difficult to focus mentally on everyday things they would otherwise learn about the world. The National Association for the Education of Young Children makes a point of this in their standards for early childhood education, in which they suggest that early childhood classrooms need to have low noise levels most of the time so that children can pay attention to speech or other sounds. Young children have trouble ignoring loud or distracting stimulation, which may draw them away from important sensory experiences. I recall visiting a foster home where a two-year-old boy was completely distracted by a television set and some music playing simultaneously. He stood between the two sounds and rocked back and forth from one foot to the other, and didn’t respond to his name being spoken. He was totally engaged with a sensory experience that was not meaningful in terms of the learning he needed to be doing--- in strong contrast to what he might have experienced if sitting on someone’s lap looking at a picture book.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other interested groups are not concerned about what screen-watching does to children, but about what it prevents them from accomplishing. Because of the special nature of early childhood learning, watching passively does not give infants and toddlers the learning experiences that older human beings can achieve through observation. This is true no matter how carefully programming is claimed to have been designed for the very young.


  1. Some good points on multisensory stimulation and attention.

    And the effects of noisy, highly stimulating environments!

    Just a question about the senses: what about temperature, pain, proprioception and vestibular qualities?

    "What necessary experiences [screenwatching] interferes with"...

    The third paragraph shows many of the other non-screenwatching experiences that children have. And the dependence they have on older individuals. Do you think a child would turn on a screen because it was their idea? And it shows the needs of the caregivers too.

  2. Certainly temperature is a good addition, but when I said movement experiences I figured that included proprioception and vestibular activity. There's no question that rocking, jiggling,and being "walked" are experiences babies respond to. Some people may say "why not use a wind-up swing?", but that's a kind of movement that doesn't include other stimulation, nor can it be modulated in response to the baby's response to it.

  3. "Do you think a child would turn on a screen because it was their idea?"
    I dunno, I'll ask my 2.5 year old after i get my iPad back from him... ;)