Is TV Terrible for Toddlers?

One of the most vivid childhood memories you usually have is of the TV shows you watched as a kid. Those cartoon characters likely extended into every part of your life: books, pretend play, bedroom décor, school supplies, clothing, etc. You may have learned life lessons and educational facts, or a certain show may have sparked interest in a hobby or career for you. Doubtless, TV played an influential role in your beginning years.

But in today’s world where screens are everywhere from inside restaurants and vehicles to in the palms of little hands, how much TV is too much? What effects does it have on very young children? Should toddlers even be watching TV at all? (And by toddlers, we mean little ones under 3 years old.)

There’s no black and white in the toddler TV debate. You will find beliefs all across the spectrum, from zero screen time to a couple hours to several hours to no limit at all. But how much TV is okay isn’t the only debate. The other half of the argument is which shows are appropriate for toddlers. What they watch is just as important as how much, if not more so. Let’s take a closer look at both these aspects of the debate.

At home by night, three kids watching tv

At home by night, three kids watching tv


TV Is Beneficial

Many argue that TV is actually beneficial for young children, and research does back up this claim. One of the most iconic children’s shows, Sesame Street, has proven that educational TV has lasting academic effects on viewers. Some of these positive results are:

  • Higher rates of literacy and numeracy
  • More interest in reading and learning activities
  • Increased readiness for kindergarten
  • Larger vocabulary
  • Higher GPA in high school
  • Appreciation for academic achievement

Sesame Street is just as effective as, and sometimes more effective than, Head Start preschool programs – and at a fraction of the cost. There’s no arguing that every parent wants these benefits for their children!

Sesame Street also encourages parent involvement in education. It provides ways for families to read, learn, and explore together. It has more than just cognitive effects, too. The show also comes with social advantages. It leads to less aggression in children and normalizes diversity to discourage prejudices. And because the show is global, it’s improving academic and social education for children all around the world.

Sesame Street isn’t the only beneficial TV show. Most other PBS shows are as well, and another good option is Baby Signing Time. In deciding whether or not a certain show is good for your toddler to watch, check that it meets the following requirements.

  • It’s age appropriate, geared toward your child’s stage of development.
  • It’s high quality and well designed.
  • It models positive behavior.
  • It encourages parental involvement.

The last quality is the most important. When parents watch with their little ones, it promotes interaction, bonding, and additional learning opportunities. It allows for reviewing, discussing, and reinforcing the show’s lessons. This enhanced interaction is what toddlers need for healthy development in all areas.

Be aware that just because a show meets the above criteria doesn’t guarantee it will boost your toddler’s academic growth. For example, studies have shown that Baby Einstein videos don’t improve language skills.

Smart little toddler girl wearing big glasses while watching her laptop

Smart little toddler girl wearing big glasses while watching her laptop

TV Time Can Be Flexible

Some people express that TV limits are unrealistic in today’s world or too restrictive. They’re inconvenient for families with older children who are allowed to watch more TV. They interfere with family TV time or movie nights. They make it hard to go to the movies as a family if no babysitter is available. In fact, it can also act as a babysitter, allowing parents to make dinner or take a phone call.

With screens on all the time everywhere, watching TV and other media is unavoidable and challenging to control. Worrying about every minute of TV time a toddler gets is stressful, and parents experience enough worry and stress as it is!


TV Time Should Be Limited

Most parents seem to agree that all-day TV watching is harmful, but what they don’t agree on is what the time limit should be. Thankfully, health professionals have settled that matter. The American Academy of Pediatrics came out with updated guidelines for screen time in late 2016. (The previous recommendation was a two-hour limit for children over 2 years old.) The new guidelines relevant to toddlers are:

  1. No screen time at all for babies 18 months and under.
  2. The only exception is video chatting with family and friends, which can be beneficial to development.
  3. Children who are 2 to 5 years old should watch no more than one hour of TV a day.
  4. The shows they watch must be very high quality, and parents should watch with their children to help them understand what they’re viewing.
  5. Parents can begin to introduce TV to toddlers 18 to 24 months old as long as parents follow the same strict guidelines listed above.

The reasons for the time restrictions is that TV has many detrimental effects on very young children, which we will discuss next.

TV Is Harmful

Babies and toddlers grow so quickly in their early years. Their minds develop at astounding rates, absorbing the world around them. The right tools encourage healthy skill and brain development. These tools include face-to-face human interaction, hands-on exploration and play, and adequate sleep.

TV watching interferes with every one of these. It hinders interpersonal communication, not only when children are absorbed by the TV, but also when parents are watching adult shows. It takes away time from physical activity and rest, and the bright, flashing light contributes to problems with falling asleep.

It’s also very distracting. Infants can easily get overstimulated from all the sights and sounds. Older toddlers lose what little attention span they have due to ever-changing, always-entertaining media. This means trouble once they go to school.

Children, including toddlers, also imitate and internalize what they see on television. Even shows that you may think teach good things can backfire. For example, a recent study showed that preschool children who are into superheroes mimicked only the aggression and not the defense of others.

For all these reasons, it’s also recommended that you don’t leave the TV on all the time as background noise. Doing so can lead to delayed speech, lower literacy skills, and less interest in reading. If no one is watching something, then turn off the TV or other media device.

You should also avoid having TVs in children’s bedrooms where it can be harder to monitor screen time and more tempting for toddlers to watch instead of play. Although the extent of temptation isn’t as much as it is for older children, it still can set up bad habits.

What Do You Think?

As you can see, the toddler TV debate is complex. While research definitely outlines how much and what type of TV is healthy for children, there are few studies focusing on the effects of screen time on just babies and toddlers. There’s still much to learn and constantly new details to sort out as society becomes increasingly more digital each day.

What do you think? Do you, or will you, let your toddler watch TV? How much? Which shows? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below or by joining KAMO on Facebook (kamofamily), Twitter (@kamo_family), or Instagram (@kamofamily).

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