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Since 1st March, 1999
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Busting Boob tube myths

Baby experts have been saying TV is bad for little brains for at least a decade; a lot of parents believe it’s good. A study released recently in the journal Pediatrics says both are wrong.

Screen time does not help babies younger than two learn, but small amounts don’t hurt them, according to the study by researchers at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital, Boston, and Harvard Medical School.

The surprising new research isn’t likely to be the last word on babies and TV. It’s a controversial subject that has moved to the forefront of family conversations in recent years, as the number of television shows and videos marketed to infants has grown and parental time pressures have increased.

“We didn’t find any evidence of harm, but I want to be quick to point out that we didn’t find any evidence of benefit either,” said Marie Evans Schmidt, a study author. “We don’t want this to become a licence for parents to put babies in front of the TV. We know the results run counter to the perception a lot of parents have — that it’s good for their brain development.”

Schmidt said past research on infants younger than two is limited but has shown that TV and videos do not help language and cognitive skills and that the screen time can lead to problems with obesity, sleep and attention later in life. For the study, data were collected on nearly 900 babies in their first two years, and at age three they were tested for language and visual motor skills. Adjustments were made for outside factors such as maternal education.

The babies in the study had been watching only a little more than an hour of TV a day on average in their first two years of life. Beyond that, TV viewing may more clearly become detrimental, researchers said.

So Schmidt, as a researcher and mother of two, said her advice to parents is: “Limit TV to what’s possible for you.”

Some parents say that although they can’t prove TV and videos have been helpful for their babies’development, they also aren’t yet sure that they are not.

Andrea Kirby Ormiston of Westminster, Maryland, began allowing her baby a half-hour of “Sesame Street” so she could get ready for work. The baby started talking before she turned one and could say her ABCs and recognise numbers and letters before she was 18 months old.

Ormiston said she and her husband, as well as their day-care providers, would read to the baby and work with her, so it’s unclear who or what gets credit for her advanced skills. But the outcome means Ormiston doesn’t regret some TV, although she remains vigilant about content and time in front of a screen.

“It is no coincidence that out of her first dozen words, eight of them had to have been “Sesame Street” characters, and came right along with mama and dada,” she said. “I don’t know how that fits into the paediatric studies, but it is proof positive that she was watching and retaining from a very young age.

“I still limit television to an hour a day, but there will always be grandparents and friends who don’t have the same philosophy. I feel like the key is to keep an eye on it and know what your kids are watching.”

Craig Grabowski of Baltimore said his son had been watching “Sesame Street” and, one day at bath time, when he was about 19 months old, he reached for the lever that turns on the shower head and said, “Up.” He pushed it down and said, “Down.” When Grabowski asked how he knew that, “He looked at me like I was an idiot and said, ‘Elmo.’ And sure enough, later that week I saw the “Elmo’s World” that talked about up and down.”

Grabowski said now that his son is two, he and his wife have allowed him some video time. But they struggle with how much screen time they should allow.

Dimitri A. Christakis, who has researched the subject of babies’ TV time (not connected to the new study), said he wanted all parents to give the matter as much thought as Ormiston and Grabowski have.

A newborn’s brain triples in size in the first two years of life, said Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and author of Make Television Work for Your Kids.

Until recently, those young brains were left to develop without TV.

It was the advent and heavy marketing of videos in recent years that led researchers to begin studying the effect of viewing time on babies. In 1999, a committee at the American Academy of Pediatrics, on which Christakis sat, began discouraging parents from putting their babies younger than two in front of a TV or video screen. It will be updating the recommendation soon, but Christakis is not sure what it will say.

“Research is ongoing, but what we do know is that, in spite of the claims by video companies, there is absolutely no benefit of TV on infants,” he said. “No study has documented educational benefits. With respect to actual harm, my own personal feeling is there is a problem, although we lack conclusive evidence.”

He said that means the new study doesn’t square with his research. But he agrees that the difference in effect might be related to the amount of TV kids are watching. Minimal amounts of TV might be OK for babies. An hour or so of quality shows such as “Sesame Street” are good for preschoolers. After that, he says, quality matters more than quantity.

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