Toddlers and Television: Say "NO" for their Future

by Melanie Sauerbrei, Sophomore: MIS/Accounting

Imagine a beautiful 52 inch television screen throwing information out in constantly changing lights, colors, sights, and sounds. Imagine all of the wonderful things you could learn and all the new things to see. Now, imagine a roomful of toddlers st aring at that 52 inch screen, their mouths open, not in wonder but in stupor, their heart rates slowed, their little brains turned off. This is what happens when you plop one and two year olds in front of a television set and go about your business.

Watching television can prevent young children from acquiring important developmental skills, and can actually foster aggressive behavior in them. I know. I've watched my children drool at the television and not remember anything they've seen. I've s een my son hit my daughter right after an exciting scene on a cartoon. My research has shown that I'm not the only person to notice these trends and be concerned by them.

Today, we're going to look at this issue. First, I'll show you that television viewing is indeed a problem for young children. Then we'll discuss simple ways to help solve this problem, and finally, I'll show you what can happen when TV isn't the driv ing force behind a family. Now let's take a look at the problem.

Allowing children two and under to watch television can cause serious developmental problems. Some important skills that toddlers need can not be developed in front of the television. Television gives toddlers dialogue to listen to as well as a visual representation of the action to imitate. In Understanding Child Development, Rosalind Charlesworth says that this kind of imitative play cuts down on a child's need to think and use his own creative play ideas. In What to Expect the T oddler Years, Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff, and Sandee Hathaway agree that with rare exceptions, television shows don't encourage creativity. Along with creativity, a toddler needs to build an adequate attention span to prepare for preschool and kindergarten. Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Hathaway say, "excessive viewing prevents young children from developing skills that are vital to long-term happiness. Chronic TV viewers learn to depend on television for stimulation and satisfaction," and because TV is broken into eight-minute segments (even shorter for children's programming), Jim Trelease in The Read-Aloud Handbook agrees that television fosters a short attention span.

Television also interferes with a plethora of other skills. Edward Zigler and Matia Finn-Stevenson in Children Development and Social Issues, say that although children are able to imitate what they see on television, they usually do not l earn problem-solving strategies by watching "Sesame Street." According to Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Hathaway, children who watch a lot of TV often can't entertain themselves and certainly aren't motivated to try, and excessive television viewing in the todd ler years can prevent a child from developing a close relationship with books, a relationship crucial to continuing intellectual growth. Jim Trelease concludes with: "A young child sits passively in front of the screen, oblivious to what is going on arou nd him. Conversation during the program is seldom if ever encouraged by the child or by the parents. This deprives the child of social interaction as well as the language lessons he gets from family conversation."

Now that we've seen how television affects a child's skills, let's talk about aggression. Aggression is a growing problem in our society that can be directly linked to television viewing. Children watch more and more television as they get older. Accor ding to Rosalind Charlesworth, children as young as 9 months old are watching up to 90 minutes a day. The Read-Aloud Handbook states that one to two year olds watch about two hours a day. In addition, it says that two to five year olds watch four hours of television a day. That's 20 hours a week! These numbers might be hard to believe if they came from just one location, but all of my sources agree that this is how much television young children are watching.

In many cases, aggressive programming leads to aggressive children. What to Expect the Toddler Years says that "watching violence on TV fosters aggressive behavior in children. At the very least, it dulls sensitivity toward violence and allows young viewers to take it for granted rather than being worried about it." From Understanding Child Development we learn that viewing television has the following effects:

Further, aggressive children are usually disliked by their peers, watch more violent television, and become even more aggressive. In "Young Children and Television: the Retention of Emotional Reactions," Donald Hayes and Dina Casey tell us that even w hen young children are able to remember emotions in a television program, they still may not understand how those reactions affect later events in a story; therefore, a child may not understand that hitting or pushing isn't acceptable since the child on T V just did it. Jim Trelease sums it up by saying, "If television can inspire a viewer to buy a certain brand of lipstick or sneaker or cereal or car, it also can inspire a child to solve problems violently."

Now that we've looked at the problem, let's discuss a solution. This problem may seem overwhelmingly large, but there are simple steps we can all take to protect young children from the adverse effects of television. The first step is: Turn It Off. An y time a child two or younger is in the room, the television should be off. Young children can't be hurt by what they can't see, but I've shown that sometimes they can be hurt by what they do see. This isn't as hard as it may seem, though it may take som e getting used to. My husband and I physically removed the television from our home almost a year ago; the children never missed it, and remarkably, neither did we.

The second step is to fill up the empty TV time with more acceptable activities. Introduce your children to new activities, and soon they'll surprise you with their own ideas. Quiet activities could include coloring on blank paper or in coloring books, reading, supervised art work, helping with the cooking, and any other quiet thing you can think of. While active play could include playing with balls or trucks, pretending to do or be something unusual, walks, trips to stores, museums or zoos, and whate ver your child's developing imagination can come up with (within the parent's safety guidelines). My children play dinosaur soccer, a game of their own invention. They kick small beach balls into a milk crate while pretending to be dinosaurs. This doesn 't mean you have to constantly entertain your child.

While you might ask, "Where do I find the time for all of this?", you'll find that time seems to multiply with the TV off. Also, young children need constant supervision, so suggesting creative things for your child should take no more time than superv ising him. As your child's imagination grows, he'll find more and more things to do on his own, and you might find imaginative play with your child so enjoyable that you'd rather do that than the myriad of adult things you generally do.

Next, think about the future. If you are a parent, think about how much television you want your child to watch next year, the year after that, and the year after that. The only way to control your future is to think about it and make plans, and if yo u decide what you're going to do now, you'll know how to react to your children's television demands in the future. If you're not a parent yet, think about what you'd like to do when you do have children. Don't wait until the day your child arrives to cha nge your TV habits; you'll be too busy to follow through. Decide what changes you can make in your lifestyle now to help prepare you for later. The final step in solving the television problem is: Follow Through!

Well, offering a solution is one thing, but how does it turn out in the end? The results of this decision may be surprising. It has been almost a year since we gave up our TV, and the list of our children's accomplishments in that time are phenomenal. Intellectually, they have grown by leaps and bounds. My one year old daughter, Kira , already sings the alphabet, counts to six, and has a working vocabulary of about sixty words (growing every day). According to What to Expect the Toddler Years, a normal child her age might be able to use six words. That's six, and Kira uses sixty! She loves to look at books, and can follow three part commands (most of the time). According to Eisenberg, Murkoff, and Hathaway, in two more months she should be able to follow two step commands. My two year old son, Camen, holds complex conversations with me and my husband. He can follow multiple part commands, and knows most of our thirty to forty story books by heart. Right now, he's working on teaching his sister everything he knows.

Socially, they constantly exceed even the high standards we expect from them. They play well with each other and with the other toddlers in the day care. They seldom act up in public, and we can take them to restaurants because they eat quietly and app ropriately. They already have exceptional manners. Even the one year old says, "please," and "thank-you."

Don't just take my word for it. Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, also went TV free with his family. The first year was rough for them because their children were older, but they made a plan and followed through. They soon found that they had more time to do things like read, study, learn new games, and enjoy many other pleasant activities. The children's imaginations came back to life, and over the years, television was reintroduced into the family, but with limits to prev ent over use. You can read more about their experiences without television in The Read-Aloud Handbook.

Watching television prevents toddlers from acquiring important developmental skills like creativity, an adequate attention span, and problem solving, to name a few. What's more, the aggressive acts on television, even children's programming, can foste r aggressive behavior in toddlers. Frighteningly, Rosalind Charlesworth says that "children who are already prone to be aggressive appear to be the ones who are most likely to be even more aggressive after viewing violent behavior on television." When ch ildren are as young as one or two, how do you know who is prone and who is not?

We've now talked about the problems concerning children two and under watching television, a possible solution, and how that solution has really worked in my life and in the life of Jim Trelease. Now it's time for you to get involved. If you have child ren, find activities to do with them other than watching the tube. If you babysit, try doing the same. Most importantly, start now. Make plans for your family's future, and start making lifestyle changes now. Don't wait until you see your toddler sitt ing in front of that beautiful 52 inch television with his mouth open and his mind closed.


Author's Note

I'd like to make it clear that in "Toddlers and Television" I wasn't suggesting that no one should ever watch TV. In fact, I strongly believe that certain types of programming are essential for older children and adults to keep up with important world events, learn new things that aren't offered in schools, and even for occasional entertainment. In this essay I was trying to convey how important I think it is for very young children to learn to cope without the constant stimulation of the television, and how certain types of television can be detrimental to the normal development of toddlers. Finally, I'd like to say that this article wasn't intended to offend anyone, though with issues such as these some toes are bound to be stepped on. I'd love t o hear from anyone with more information on this subject, even those of you with opposing views. Just e-mail

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