Like many parents, Linda Pagani, a psychologist at the University of Montreal, long suspected that watching too much television might not be the best thing for the cognitive and emotional development of children. For years the rule for her three children has been no TV between Sunday and Thursday nights. Now, whenever her kids grumble about the prohibition, she has some startling research of her own to show them.
In a study of 1,300 children from Michigan and Montreal, Pagani and her colleagues recently documented that watching TV at age two shows a troubling connection with an array of behaviors and outcomes when the child is reassessed at age 10. The more television the toddler watched, the greater the likelihood, several years later, that he or she would perform worse in math, consume more soda and junk food, have a higher-than-average body mass, engage poorly in class, and be bullied at school.
In the first few years of life, the human brain explodes with growth, its neurons making vital connections that will shape cognition into adulthood. That too much TV might hinder this development is common sense, Pagani says; unfortunately that understanding doesn’t seem to translate into action. While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than two watch less than two hours of TV a day, surveys show that more than 40 percent of two- and three-year-olds watch more than that amount. “Because it seems so inocuous and entertaining,” Pagani and her coauthors write in the study, “a population-level understanding of the developmental risks associated with television exposure remains a challenge.” Pagani hopes that by highlighting the damage overexposure to television in early childhood can cause, she can wake people up to the problem.
If you are already thinking, “Yes, but my toddlers only watch educational television,” Pagani has bad news. According to her research, it's the passive nature of watching television that is harmful, not the content of the programming. "Sitting in front of the television is a sedentary intellectual and physical activity," Pagani says. "We’re talking about a time of life when your brain is tripling in size and your neural networks are coming together and your fundamental brain circuitry is being wired. It's critical that young children spend this time of development engaging in physical activities and interacting with others."
She sees little difference whether toddlers watch pseudo-educational programs like Dora the Explorer or mindless silliness like Sponge Bob Squarepants. “There is no problem-solving when you are in front of the set. Everything on television is handed to you on a platter. Your child’s brain will get much more stimulation by taking a bath and playing with water toys.”
Perhaps the most interesting finding from the study is that early TV watching is linked to being teased, assaulted, insulted, and rejected by peers later in life. Fellow researcher and co-author Eric Dubow, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, suspects that by watching television so early, toddlers aren’t learning the basics of socializing with others. “The nature of television isn’t interactive,” says Dubow. “If you are employ that same passivity in relationships with others, you leave yourself open to being bullied.”
Pagani’s study has caught the attention of media and other researchers around the world, so much so that she has had to clear much of her schedule to field calls from the press. “I knew it would get a certain amount of attention but I didn’t think it would go on for days and days,” she says. “In the end I’m gratified. I think if we can get the message out, we’ll be helping a lot of people.”
Other researchers have lauded the study both for the sample size and for the work Pagini and her fellow researchers did to factor out confounding variables, like a child’s temperament and family structure. The causal connection she has shown between early television and poor outcomes and unhealthy habits later in childhood is startlingly clear.
Pagani’s own household rules about television have been in place since her children were toddlers. She established the limits as much to maintain strong family bonds as to address her suspicions about neural development. “Both my husband and I work, so I just didn’t see where we would fit in picking them up from school, having a nice long supper together, getting a bath, and doing homework on top of watching hours of television,” she says. “In the end, you need a certain amount of sleep.”
Pagani admits that it’s often difficult as a parent to hold the line. Her eldest of three children is now 12 and lobbies for time online. (“That’s still ‘screen time’” Pagani says of the online world, “and it can be just as sedentary as watching television.”) Her study has only strengthened her resolve to bar the door in her household to constant media consumption.
“From Sunday night to Thursday night there is absolutely no excuse to watch television,” she says. “That even goes for ‘American Idol,’ which is a family favorite. We tape it and watch it together on Friday.”
Ethan Watters is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, and other magazines, and is the author most recently of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, which was published in January by Free Press.