If you’re a new mother, you’ve probably heard that it is recommended that children from 2 to 5 years of age have an hour of TV a day and that unders 2s should have NO screen time at all (according to the Raising Children website that is backed by the Australian government). Knowing this sure made me feel an awful lot guilty when Miss A was a grizzly infant and I resorted to switching on the kids’ channel on TV to catch a breather.
The experts say TV under 2 is bad because they can’t learn language and social skills from the screen and are too young to process screen images or follow TV programs. It can apparently also overstimulate them and affect sleep. I really felt like I was doing something terrible to my infant by letting her watch TV and videos. But at the same time, cutting out her screen time completely just made everyone miserable. She was a difficult baby and I had no family help, so TV just gave me a break to have something to eat or use the bathroom in peace. Nap times didn’t provide that same downtime as she napped in my arms for the first year. I eventually let go of the guilt and told myself if I was doing all the other things I was meant to do with her, some TV each day couldn’t harm.
As Miss A grew, it became very obvious that TV was not hurting her speech development at all; in fact, it was actually helping it. At 2 years old, she is speaking full sentences and able to carry long conversations. Her comprehension is quite amazing and she says things that surprise me every day! She loves reading books and playing. Her social and motor development are also all normal. So I wanted to write this article to make mothers out there feel less guilty about baby screen time. My personal stance is that it is fine, but there is also a right way and wrong way to go about it. I think experts have to kind of give the blanket rule of “no screen time” because there really are parents who just chuck their kids in front of their TV all day long and do not interact with them. Well, clearly that is the wrong way to do it! Below is what we did:
1. Age appropriate shows
I live in Australia where we are lucky enough to have a dedicated free-to-air preschool channel which features age appropriate shows with no advertisements. These shows have simple content they can understand and frames that don’t move at the speed of light.
When Miss A was an infant, she loved shows like In The Night Garden and Playschool. She also enjoyed nursery rhymes and watched nursery rhyme compilations and shows like Mother Goose Club on YouTube. We also had a nursery rhyme book she loved and a CD that played on repeat in the car for many months. She can now memorise most of them. The Gigglebellies’ range of children’s songs and nursery rhymes on YouTube was also a favourite.
Then like most kids she moved on to a Peppa Pig phase. Now she likes shows like Charlie and Lola, Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, 64 Zoo Lane, Bing Bunny and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.
2. Back them up with books
Most preschool shows also have a book range and that can really encourage kids to read as they can recognise the characters. Miss A now loves a wide variety of books – both from shows and not.
Luckily for us, we live near to a really excellent public library that has every childrens’ book imaginable. I think her speech skills would be very different if we didn’t as we can’t afford to buy the amount of books she churns through! We visit the library every three weeks and borrow at least 10 books each time. She is obsessed with stories and gets us to read books all day long until she can literally memorise them and a part of me very honestly gets fed up of reading! We also make up stories all the time.
3. Discuss, reenact, role play
We have always kept in touch with what she watches. We know the characters and watch some of the episodes with her so we can discuss things with her and answer questions she may have. Miss A also loves acting out her favourite episodes and role playing as cartoon characters. Her favourites are Charlie and Lola (a brother and sister pairing) and Daniel Tiger which is an excellent show that teaches children how to deal with their emotions. Usually she is Daniel and I’m Mummy Tiger or O The Owl (his best friend), my husband is Daddy Tiger and our dog is Baby Margaret (his sister).
She only watches feature length animation movies that we have gone through together. At 2 she is still unable to follow the storylines without our input. Her favourite is Big Hero 6 which is also one of my husband’s favourites. He prepped her relentlessly before we watched it. They watched the trailers, researched it and discussed it. They even printed out pictures of the main characters and stuck them on empty toilet rolls to play with. So when she watched the movie, she already recognized the characters. They have watched it dozens of times, pouring over every little detail. They act out the scenes all the time and also make up their own stories role playing the characters and this really fires up her creativity and imagination. These are things older kids do and I didn’t expect she could do so well at this age. It’s been pretty amazing to watch how much they can learn when you help them along.
4. Use it as a learning tool
We are very lucky to have the internet at our fingertips these days. Online videos are a great way to reinforce learning. For example, when she was younger we spent a particular day learning about elephants by looking at her picture books, looking up more images and articles online, watching videos on YouTube, then finally going to the zoo and seeing them in the flesh. Now that Miss A is over 2 and her level of comprehension has increased, she is able to follow animal documentaries and we’re also starting to learn about things like volcanoes and how they work.
5. Make it part of a balanced life
Lastly, this is the obvious one – do other things too besides watching TV and you’ll be fine. In terms of speech development, these are things I’ve felt have helped Miss A along:
- Reading heaps of books.
- Narrating everything (things we’re doing, things around us etc) since she was a baby. Now that she’s older, it’s more of a conversation.
- No baby talk. Even when she was a baby, we always spoke to her like an adult and used proper words. They have the capacity to understand even before they can speak properly.
- Encourage them to speak full sentences. When she started speaking, we always encouraged Miss A to use full sentences. As all kids do, she would point at something she wants and squeal and we will tell her to say something like “I want that please” before we helped her.
When Miss A was an infant, I was worried that I was getting her “hooked” on TV but as she’s grown older and the world has gotten more interesting to her, she’s actually watched it less and less and there are plenty of days that she doesn’t ask for it at all. There are obviously some days where she watches more TV/videoes than others, especially when either she or I are sick or I have a lot of work to get done urgently and she won’t stop clinging to my leg, but most days she may watch an hour of shows/videos. The same goes with her iPad – we actually used to let her watch it in her pram (she hated staying in it) and when we were out and sitting down for dinner and she was restless etc, but as she started learning to talk and participate in conversations, the need for distraction has completely disappeared. I just wanted to mention that to encourage mothers who are just trying to survive the first year. You have to do what you have to do initially! But keep fostering their speech, creativity and imagination with other activities and I promise they will get easier to handle as they get older. TV is not the enemy. It’s how you use it!