By JUDITH WARNER
Toddlers and TV is a subject that just won’t go away. KJ DellAntonia wrote about it here just last week, and this week a new recommendation issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics at the group’s annual meeting in Boston has revived it again. The pediatricians said that parents should limit the amount of time their infants and toddlers spend in front of any sort of screen and reaffirmed earlier research showing that there’s really no such thing as educational TV or software for very young children.
They gave parents a break, though, by moving away from an earlier policy statement that had recommended an outright ban on television watching and screen use by children under age 2.
Interestingly, the pediatricians’ group softened its stance not because of new research or an actual change in thinking, but because of pressure from parents and fellow physicians who simply found the earlier recommendations to be so unrealistic as to have no value. We live in a world of screens, the thinking is now: let’s just try to get parents to use them wisely, rather than make them feel guilty for using them at all.
What has amazed me this week, as the new recommendations have generated enormous print attention (including a story in The New York Times that remains at the top of the most e-mailed list) and air time and discussion on blogs, is that the conversation has to take place at all. Honestly, did anyone ever genuinely think they were doing their children a developmental favor by sticking them in front of that scary big baby who rises in the sun on Teletubbies? Did anyone seriously believe that videos like “Baby Einstein” were anything other than a feel-good form of electronic baby-sitting?
That there is now continued research dollars — and significant media space — being spent on debating the notion that having a small child sit immobile before a screen can in any way be beneficial shows two things: the amazing power of wishful thinking and the problem too many parents have with taking ownership of their actions.
That sounds much harsher than I mean, so let me backtrack: no doctor is saying that letting small children watch a little TV while their parents take a shower or make a phone call or check e-mail is a terrible thing. What the pediatricians are saying is that we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that it’s a good thing. And it seems to me that that this message is fine — or would be fine, if parents, and parents of babies in particular, weren’t constantly feeling we had to maximize each and every moment of their lives with brain-nourishing interactions.
If we gave ourselves the permission to acknowledge that sometimes — for a whole host of reasons — we just need to let our children sit still and vegetate, then we wouldn’t have created a market for falsely seductive “educational” screen entertainment in the first place. And if we didn’t feel compelled to parent in such a time-, energy-, and emotionally intensive way, I wonder if we’d feel quite the same desperate need at times to give our children and ourselves an extended vegging-out break.
Having said all this, though, I do want to change gears and draw attention to the most important line in The Times’s story, which came at the very end: “As always, the children who are most at risk are exactly the very many children in our society who have the fewest resources,” Benedict Carey quotes Alison Gopnik, a psychologist at the University of California, as saying.
Most of the people taking part in the current toddlers ‘n’ TV debate are parents and professionals who know better than to plop their young children in front of the TV for long stretches of time. They have the resources — whether time or money or neighborhood amenities like good, safe parks or affordable day care — to keep their children well cared-for most hours of the day.
The people who most need to hear the message about screens are those who don’t have those resources. Our responsibility to them as a society isn’t to preach about turning off the tube, but to provide them with accessible, high-quality alternatives to plugged-in child care.