Being mindful about babies and media viewing

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. Founder of

Montreal, Canada.

I would first like to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Let's start off the new year with habits that will help our children develop at their best and habits that will help us adults keep our brains at their best as well! Here is my first blog post of the year on media viewing in children and I am also working on a newsletter that focuses on the aging brain so stay tuned!

I am part of a few "mommy groups" on Facebook and right before the holidays, a mom posted a question about media viewing and babies. Her pediatrician had recommended that she not introduce television to her baby until the age of 2. This started a major discussion on this mommy forum. Many mothers felt this was unrealistic, given today's media-rich society. Although this may be true, I think the final conclusion of this discussion should have been that we, as parents, should simply be more mindful of 1) how we are using media and 2) how much media time our children are being subjected to. Unfortunately, the conclusion of this forum revolved more around 1) the doctor being crazy and not understanding today's world and 2) mom's needing breaks so who cares what the doctor recommends. This is why I wanted to blog about this topic. I want to provide some information to parents. In the end, it is indeed your decision, however, being more aware and mindful of media viewing can't hurt! Let's keep in mind that the American Association of Pediatrics does not recommend any media viewing before the age of 18 months (they recently changed this from 2 years to 18 months). This does not include video-chatting (example FaceTime and Skype), meaning that it is OK to FaceTime with family members.

Here are a few points that I would like to raise regarding media viewing and babies.

1) My baby learns from watching "educational videos".

The #1 reason most parents have their child watch TV or use media is for "educational purposes" (Zimmerman et al. 2007. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.). This is followed by entertainment and babysitting purposes. At about the age of 2, children naturally experience a "word spurt" where they blossom in language development. It is possible for parents to believe the video helped them learn when in reality it is the brain's natural process. Babies younger than 24 months learn language best by having a book read to them or by having an adult speak to them. However, after age 2, they might be able to learn from high-quality programming such as Sesame Street. In 2010, a study by DeLoache et al. (Psychological Science) investigated whether educational DVDs for babies really do help them learn. They stated that "The most important result was that children who viewed the DVD did not learn any more words from their month-long exposure to it than did a control group (who did nothing). The highest level of learning occurred in a no-video condition in which parents tried to teach their children the same target words during everyday activities. Another important result was that parents who liked the DVD tended to overestimate how much their children had learned from it. We conclude that infants learn relatively little from infant media and that their parents sometimes overestimate what they do learn."

2) What about media viewing and older children?

In an interesting study by Inoue et al. (2016, Maternal and Child Health Journal), over 32 000 children were followed for a period of 8 years to study the impact of media viewing. The results showed that children ages 4-5 who watched 4-5 hours of media a day (TV, video games, iPad) were twice as likely to have self-regulation problems later on (the ability to monitor and control your emotions and thoughts) than children who only watched 1-2 hours. It comes down to my point of "how much" media a child views. If parents are able to make dinner while the child watches 30 min of TV, it's fine. However, I always recommend that parents start "family time" after dinner. By this I don't mean watching TV together, rather playing board games, card games or reading books together (Need ideas? Send me an email at This gives children quality time with parents and reduces the over stimulation from media before their bed time. As a side note, from my work experience, 90% of my children ages 4-10 have told me during our private activity sessions that they would like to spend more time playing with their parents. Just some food for thought!

3) What if my baby is playing while the TV is on in the background?

TV in the background is extra stimulation for the young developing brain. Moreover, studies have shown that parents tend to speak less to their baby if they are watching TV and this can potentially impact language development. If a parent is watching TV, they tend to speak 200-300 fewer words per hour to their child. Obviously, if this happens once or twice it's OK but, if this is a daily occurrence, it can cause a delay in the brain's language development. In addition, having the TV in the background disrupts their attention span during their play time. A study published in Child Development (Schmidt et al, 2008) showed that children become easily distracted by TV when they are playing on their own. Also, if a parent is playing with their baby while watching TV the quality of play is also disrupted (Kirkorian et al. 2009. Child Development).

The bottom line.

Bottom line is that we need to be mindful not to saturate our children's environment with media. I have seen parents use an iPad for games, TV for entertainment and babysitting and an iPhone/iPad in the car or at the restaurant. All of this in one day is too much stimulation. Try substituting a form of media with a book, coloring book, puzzles, challenges (lacing activity, maze books etc). Always re-assess how much media your child is viewing. Don't always use their media time as alone time either. Learn about animals together or nature, dinosaurs or even our solar system. Use what you learned as the basis of an activity. Yes, we do live in a media-rich world, but let's use media wisely. Let's be more mindful of the time our children spend on media. Why not try to reduce media time and increase play time!