Are Kids TV Shows Harmful? (depends on the age and content)

Kent Shaffer —  December 3, 2009

The Walt Disney Company is giving refunds on Baby Einstein DVDs after acknowledging that they do not enhance infant brain development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time under age 2 and <2 hours of screen time for over age 2 (screen time:  TV, DVDs, computers, & electronic games).

For Infants: videos only teach infants to watch TV, which causes increased risks for obesity, attention problems, school difficulties, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.

For Preschoolers: well-designed educational screen media can improve language skills, reading, math, and school readiness. High school seniors who watched educational TV during their preschool years experienced higher grades, greater creativity, more reading, placing higher value on achievement, and less anxiety and aggression during high school.

The most important time in a child’s intellectual development is the first 3 years and in the womb. Babies begin to learn languages in the womb, and during 6-12 months, infants focus on learning the sounds of their native language and lose their ability to distinguish the phonetic sounds of other languages.

This loss of ability is because at birth, an infants brain has roughly 100 billion unconnected brain cells that immediately begin wiring the circuitry of the brain and learning. This wiring during infancy and early childhood actually overproduces neural connections (pruned later in life) for learning in a state of hyperawareness.  Think of a child’s brain like wet concrete that is far more impressionable in the early stages and less and less impressionable with time (as the brain wires and prunes itself).

WHAT DOES SCREEN MEDIA DO TO KIDS?

  • Nothing Learned (a few exceptions for preschoolers)
    Studies show children cannot reliably learn anything from an electronic screen until about 30 months. TV viewing before the age of 2 does not improve a child’s language and visual motor skills. However, there are a few very rare TV exceptions that have a positive effect for children ages 2-3. (via / via)
  • Stunted Language Development
    Children need human social interaction to learn languages, which is why educational audio and screen resources have proved ineffective. Screen media replaces social interaction with humans or at least reduces verbal interaction, which causes babies to miss crucial developmental experiences. For 2-48 month olds, each additional hour of TV exposure is associated with a decrease of 7% (770 words) that the child hears from an adult. For every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs, 8-16 month olds understand an average of 6 to 8 fewer words than children who did not watch television.  (via / via / via)
  • Stunted Eye Development
    Staring a the small parameters of a screen may affect the development of a full range of eye movement. (via)
  • Decreased Focus & Increased ADHD
    Watching screen media may reduce the length of time kids can stay focused. Each hour of television viewed daily between ages 1-3 increased the likelihood of disorders like ADHD by nearly 10% at age 7. (via / via)
  • Increased Aggression
    98%+ of pediatricians say that media violence affects childhood aggression. 10 percent of real-life violence may be attributed to media violence. (via)
  • Increased Weight
    Children who consistently spend more than 4 hours per day watching TV are more likely to be overweight. (via)
  • Increased Consumerism
    U.S. kids see 40,000 commercials a year. Research shows a single exposure to a television advertisement affected preschool children’s brand preferences. A taste-testing study showed 60% of kids (ages 3-5) thought an identical burger in a McDonalds wrapper tasted better than an identical burger in a plan wrapper. (via)

Researcher Aric Sigman goes as far as claiming that TV is bad for both kids and adults in 15 ways: obesity, healing, heart trouble, metabolism, eyesight, Alzheimer’s, attention span, hormones, cancer, early puberty, autism, sleep, hunger, brain growth, and diabetes.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE CHURCH?

Using screen media in children’s ministry should be done with educated caution. Researchers agree that well-designed educational media can be effective for kids ages 2+.

Screen media has teaching challenges which can be overcome, but not everyone can achieve such a feat.

Blue’s Clues is perhaps the best example of what rigorous research, creativity, talent, and testing can achieve. Blue’s Clues tested and tweaked all episodes at least 3 times before going on air, and that investment paid off. On a 60-item test where Blue’s Clues watchers could correctly identify 50 items, the control group could only identify 35 items. (via)

Effective teaching, particularly with screen media, isn’t easy. If you want an effective children’s ministry, you need to do your homework and invest, invest, invest.

Kent Shaffer

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I live in an RV with my wife and 2 kids and work with OpenChurch.com to help Christians collaborate and build a global Church library of free, open content.

2 responses to Are Kids TV Shows Harmful? (depends on the age and content)

  1. It all comes back to being intentional. You have to be intentional with what you use and teach whether it’s screens, flannelgraph, talking, or organic toys made from teak that is harvested from the broken branches in the rain forest. We also have to be careful when looking at all of these studies because new research is finding that brain development/wiring is radically changing due to media. We have to adjust our paradigms in how we disseminate information in order to get information communicated effectively to children. It’s not as easy a question on whether or not media is good or bad. The questions need to surround how it is all used and why it is used and how to leverage it.

  2. Kids in this tech culture (any culture?) thrive for relationship maybe more than ever before. I find that the best Kids Zone lessons have been when we have real life teachers – especially missionaries sharing their stories :)