Family Matters

‘Educational TV’ for Babies? It Doesn’t Exist

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If there was any doubt that television is not a good use of toddlers’ time, consider the findings of one study that drilled down into babies’ understanding of what they were watching on TV. When groups of 6-, 12- and 18-month-olds watched cartoons played both forward and backward, so that the characters were doing everything in reverse, only the oldest babies showed a preference for the correct order.

It’s not that they’re less discriminating. But until about age 2, studies show that young children can’t cognitively comprehend what’s being said and retain that information. Dozens of studies affirming that finding were what prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to update its policy statement on media use for kids under 2 on Tuesday. The upshot: there is no such thing as educational TV for this bunch.

The organization is waging a seriously uphill battle, though. In a survey, 90% of parents reported that their children under 2 watch some TV. And more than half of parents said they think educational television programming is important for their young child. “There is a presumption by parents that TV is educational,” says Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and lead author of the new policy. “But the research we have seen has shown there is a digital developmental divide.”

What that means, writ large, is that Sesame Street has been shown to contribute to improved language and social skills in children older than 2. But play the same programming for younger kids, says Brown, and they will actually have delayed language skills. Only children older than 2 demonstrate consistent comprehension.

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Television-viewing also fosters less parent-child interaction, cutting down on what experts call “talk time,” in which a child hears lots of vocabulary words that in turn help develop their language abilities. Playing with your kids is still the best way for them to learn, according to a study published last year in Psychological Science, which found that 12-to-18-month-old babies learned more words from interacting with mom and dad than from watching videos marketed to infants.

In case you thought you could turn off Barney for your baby but keep the Bachelorette re-run buzzing in the background, think again. For the first time, the AAP statement weighs in on “secondhand TV,” the group’s version of secondhand smoke. Up to 60% of families report that the television is always or often on, even when no one is watching. “When you think no one is really watching, someone is watching, and it’s your child,” says Brown, citing research that shows young children playing with toys while an adult show is on will look up at the screen every 20 seconds.

After age 2, the AAP recommends limiting media to two hours of total screen time. Choose well, the group urges: quality matters. Not only has television been linked to sleep problems and obesity, but recent research published in the journal Pediatrics found that fast-paced cartoons can impair concentration.

Although nearly one-third of kids have a TV in their room by their third birthday, it’s ideal to turn television time into family time. Really, though, who does that? When I let my kids watch TV, it’s usually because I don’t have the time to engage them. I feel bad for letting the pixels babysit my brood, but sometimes that’s just the reality.

When I first had children, I dutifully minded the AAP exhortation to keep children under 2 away from the boob tube. That worked well when I had but one, but with each successive child — there are now three — it became trickier to keep a toddler away from the TV.

The AAP, in fact, has typically gotten a lot of flak for its Pollyanna pronouncements about TV-viewing. “Parents have asked, What planet do you live on?” says Brown. “Well, we live in the real world too, and we know you’re not able to sit down and play with your child 24 hours a day. But we want you to think about how you’re going to thoughtfully introduce media to your kids and about your own media diet as well.”

MORE: Study: Fast-Moving Cartoons Like SpongeBob May Impair Kids’ Focus

In our tech-heavy world, Brown noted that parents may feel pressured to encourage their kids to watch television and play computer games as a means of enhancing learning. But here’s the crazy thing: before apps and even before TV, kids managed to learn. A lot.

“Your child can succeed in life and learn critical-thinking skills and problem-solving skills without watching a televised program,” says Brown, who has a no-TV-during-the-week policy with her middle-schooler and high-schooler.

I didn’t ask Brown about using TV as bribery, which is how I’ve most successfully incorporated it into my kids’ world. I’m pretty much a television teetotaler. For a type A personality like me, it feels so … idle.

But it helps encourage my son to focus on stuff he doesn’t want to do — namely practice his violin and finish his writing homework in less time than it takes water to morph into ice — by dangling the bright orange carrot of much-coveted screen time. Television is such a novelty for my kids that it helps motivate them to clean up, do their homework with an emphasis on quality or well, pretty much anything.

Never let it be said that there are no parental benefits to being a Scrooge.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.