Why You Should Watch TV with Your Child

Research has shown that television can be educational for young children. For example, years of research on Sesame Street has shown that the show can improve preschoolers’ abilities in a variety of academic areas, like reading, math and social skills. In general, when television programs are designed to be age-appropriate and when the content aligns with its educational purpose, pre-school aged children can learn from television.

But television has its limitations in being an educational tool, especially for young children. Although television can be beneficial for children’s learning, young children learn best from people who can respond to their questions and direct their attention. For example, one study found that 12- to 18-month year olds did not learn any new words from watching an educational video (Baby Einstein) over four weeks, but they did learn the same words when their parent taught them through natural interactions.

Most important, parents can help young child learn from television by watching television with them, This is called “co-viewing.” When parents co-view with their child, they often elaborate on the content of the show, or direct their child’s attention to a certain aspect of the show. For instance, if Elmo is demonstrating how plants grow, a parent who is co-viewing may remind the child that they have plants in their home too, or point out that Elmo is feeding the plant water so it will grow.

One way co-viewing can help children learn is by directing children’s attention to important learning events on the screen. For example, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, observed parents and children’s looking patterns toward a television screen and found that one-year-olds will follow their parent’s eye gaze toward the screen. This is important because children’s learning from television depends on their attention to the screen, so parents’ attention to the screen can also help children stay focused.

Another way parents help children learn from television is by using it as a teaching opportunity. One study conducted at the University of California, Riverside, found that 12- to 25-month olds were more attentive while viewing a show and used more vocabulary words from the show when their parents engaged in more teaching interactions compared to children whose parents did not engage in many teaching interactions. Therefore, parents do not only direct their child’s attention to the screen, but can emphasize important learning concepts that are represented in the show.

It is important to note that having the television turned on generally reduces parent-child interactions. Parents talk less with their children and scaffold their children’s play less when the television is turned on compared to when it is not turned on. However, when the TV is turned on, children have the opportunity to learn the most from television when they are viewing with a parent who can direct their attention, answer their questions and elaborate on the storyline of the show.

There are some great educational shows on TV for children to watch, and parents can help their children learn more from the screen and apply that learning to their everyday lives when they co-view with their children. Once you spend some time watching television shows with kids, you’ll be surprised how much you learn, too!

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New Guidelines for Children and Media

About two weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a new policy statement on young children’s media use, including both the potential educational benefits and health concerns for children aged five years and younger. Previously, the AAP advocated for no screen time for children under the age of two, but based on some new research showing that toddlers can learn from interactive technology, the AAP revised their conclusions and made several important recommendations for parents:

  • Continue to engage in hands-on, unstructured play with your child. This is the AAP’s way of saying, “We’re about to loosen our guidelines for children’s media use, but that doesn’t mean you should substitute hands-on learning with media.” A separate AAP report describes research that shows exploration, puzzle play and parent-child interaction can benefit children’s social, emotional and cognitive development, so keep doing this.
  • For children younger than 18-months, discourage media use other than video chat. There is a lot of research showing that children between 12- and 18-months learn better from live interaction compared to video, also known as the video-deficit effect. However, in the past few years research has emerged suggesting toddlers can learn from some interactive media. For example, 24-month olds can learn new words from a Skye interaction with an adult. Also, parents that I’ve talked to were letting their toddlers video chat anyway, and since there is no evidence that video chat is bad for children, this is really a way of making parents feel less guilty for something they were already doing.
  • For children 18- to 24-months, parents who want to introduce media should do so IF the media is high quality and if parents and children use the media together. We know that children can learn STEM concepts, literacy and social-emotional skills from high quality educational television, such as Sesame Street and PBS programming. We also know that co-viewing and co-use – when parents watch or use media with their children – helps children understand the content they are consuming. For example, with e-books, children benefit when parents elaborate on the narrative and ask children questions about the story, as long as the features of the e-book aren’t distracting. Therefore, parents can expose their 18- to 24-month olds to high quality media if they are co-viewing with them, but parents should avoid letting children in this age range use media alone.
  • For children older than 2-years, limit media use to an hour per day and use with your child when possible to increase learning and interaction. Despite the educational benefits of media, limiting media use to an hour per day helps remind parents that their children should be engaging in other types of educational activities, like pretend play, block play and playing with other children. Although older children are better able to understand television and digital games, restricting children’s use is a good way to make sure they are engaging in other beneficial, hands-on activities.
  • No screens during meal times and an hour before bed. Considering children’s health, research shows that having a media device present during mealtime is associated with less parent-child interaction. Moreover, the blue light emitted from screens may lead to shorter sleep durations for children when screens are used at night before bed. One good practice is to not allow media in the bedroom or at the kitchen table during meals.
  • Educate yourself and seek out resources. There are lots of resources available to parents on how to engage with their children and media in healthy ways. Parents can develop a Family Media Use Plan, find high-quality television shows and apps and can educate themselves on early child development. One good resource is org, which is an organization that evaluates and reviews media, so that parents and educators know what media is age appropriate, how to engage with children around media, and which programs and games have been shown to have educational benefits. You can also refer to this blog or visit our center’s website to learn more about new research on children and media.

These new guidelines are important because pediatricians are the first practitioners who can inform parents on healthy media behavior for their infants in children. But of course, research on touch screens and media is rapidly emerging, so it’s important to keep in mind that these recommendations may change, either to become more stringent or more lax. One of my goals with this blog is to keep parents and educators up-to-date on the latest research, so I encourage you to use this as a source of information about children and healthy media habits.

Do Children Understand Symbols? It Depends

As adults, we use symbols every day. We use maps to navigate our surroundings, post pictures on social media, and watch television to gain information about the world. Many of our experiences depend on the realization that a symbol (a picture of your house) stands for something other than itself (your actual house).

But although adults use symbols every day, toddlers and children often don’t understand that symbols refer to other things in the world.

For example, research shows that when 18-month-olds were taught new words for hand-drawn pictures depicted in a book, they didn’t learn the new words. Other research shows that when 12- to 18-month-olds watched a video designed to teach them new words over the course of multiple weeks, they didn’t learn any more words than a group of infants who didn’t watch the video, suggesting they didn’t learn anything from the video.

Why do toddlers struggle to learn from something that is so seemingly transparent?

Research in symbolic development – or how children come to understand that a symbol is intended to stand for something else – suggests that toddlers and young children often focus on the symbol itself rather than what it refers to. This prevents them from learning. In the above examples, this means that toddlers will focus on the colorful picture or the television animations rather than on what these symbols stand for in the real world.

That means that when symbols are interesting objects or things, it often means they are bad symbols. Specifically, toy-like symbols are very appealing to toddlers and preschool-aged children, which means children often struggle to learn from them. Two-year-olds typically fail to use a doll as a symbol for their own body, and 2.5-year-olds struggle to use a dollhouse-like model to find a hidden object in a room that the model represents.

The problem is that symbol-makers – television show producers, picture book creators, makers of educational toys – often design symbols to be appealing so that children will want to play with them, but this may actually decrease children’s ability to learn from them. Research shows that 20-month-olds learned fewer new words for pictures in a 3-D pop-up picture book compared to a traditional, 2-D picture book. The pop-up images were likely more eye-catching to toddlers, but actually reduced toddlers’ ability to learn from them as symbols.

With age and experience, children eventually become skilled symbol users like adults. But while toddlers and young children are getting there, simple, obvious symbols may be key to learning.

For instance, although 18-month-olds struggle to learn from cartoonish picture books, they did learn when the pictures in the book were highly realistic, like photographs. Here, learning from a realistic, 2-D picture helped toddlers make the direct connection between the picture and the object it represented.

Getting a jump on symbolic learning may help children use learning tools at earlier ages. When selecting picture books or educational toys and television shows, remember that simplicity is sometimes key when it comes to learning from symbols, especially for younger children. If the show or object is too interesting in itself, it will be more difficult for children to see through the symbol to the object or concept we expect them to learn.