If you want to understand more about the effects of television on the brain, you need to watch this TEDx talk by Dr Dimitri Christakis…the science around television and its effect on children and concentration astound me. Not because any of it is counter-intuitive, but because television is as powerful as it is. Television is a [large] part of most children’s lives here in the US and this presentation of fact and observations may change what you do at home. Although it seems like there is no controversy here, last week I stumbled upon one mom proclaiming the benefits for TV at bedtime from infancy up.
We gotta get the word out.
A few take-aways on media and early learning:
- Early experiences condition the mind. Connections between brain cells change based on experiences our children have while their brain triples in size between birth and age 3.
- Initiation of television viewing is now (on average) 4 months of age.
- Prolonged exposure to rapid image changes (like on a TV show designed for an infant) during critical periods of brain development may precondition the mind to expect high levels of stimulation. This may then make the pace of real life less able to sustain our children’s attention. The more hours a child views rapid-fire television, the more likely they will have attention challenges later in life.
- Cognitive stimulation (reading books or going to a museum) reduces the likelihood for attention challenges later in life.
- What content your child watches on TV matters: the more frenetic or violent the TV show, the more likely your child will have attention challenges later in life. Television shows that move at a typical pace may be far better for our children.
- New studies (using mice) may demonstrate that learning suffers with excess TV viewing.
- We need more real time play for children. (Get out the blocks or get outside!)
I’d suggest the 15 minutes or so it takes to view this video might profoundly change your thinking about TV. Direct from the mouth of a father, pediatrician, and researcher, Dr. Dimitri Christakis explains how the brain develops, what television may do, and theorizes why ample time in front of the TV as an infant and/or toddler may reorganize how a children thinks and solves problems. More than anything, watching this made me want to reverse time and go back to do even more for my little boys and their developing brains. If only the daily museum trip was plausible…
Enjoy, leave any comments or questions, and I’ll wrangle up Dr. Christakis for specific answers, as needed.
Another great talk – thanks for sharing it. So much of this is not surprising to me, but it is good to be reminded of the power of play and interaction as one gets pulled into the frenzy of every day life!
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Yes, the power of 3-D, tactile play is incredible and it’s good to be reminded again and again…. and also good to learn about effects of TV on development—helps me remember how important it is to minimize use and how important it is to keep talking about it with my patients every single day.
Helen Arano says
Well this sounds good in what you call theory, however, my kids watched TV, of course I limited to what I thought was right. They watched awful things like, Popeye, quick draw mcgraw, bug bunny, Willie coyote. which are now considered violent. My kids are both well adjusted adults with family, who look at things in a positive light and both are successful business people. So watching TV isn’t bad, as long as it is with in reason and families take the time to be families and teach what is needed to grow into a well adjusted adult.
Oh, my kids were also taught, to play outside, not to interrupt when adults were speaking, to be kind, respect others as they wanted to be respected. We fished, swam, hunted, played games, spent lots of family time and that included friends as well.
Too much tech stuff today, not TV, it is cell phones, tablets and computers that are corrupting the wee ones, parents too busy texting to spend time with what is important.
E. Ai B. says
So things like being read to and going to museums (behavior associated with well-off, and at least somewhat attentive parents) nullifies some of the bad effects of television (a source of entertainment in most lower-level households). Emmm…I really think you can draw other connections from this information as well.
It’s not that I think a great deal of television is okay for kiddos, but in moderation, don’t believe it is anything to fret over. Wrong or right, I see that argument (no t.v.-ever,ever,ever) pop up in elitist conversations often. I don’t think it’s a cause of great evil. It’s media. That’s it. Don’t let it consume you (or your kids) entirely, and take advantage of the good it CAN offer. For instance, I do remember interviews with successful artists, writers, game designers which credited the variety of media they were able to come in contact with (yes, even on television and video games) for broadening their range of ideas. It has an effect on the brain (b/c, potentially at least, everything does) but it’s just media.
Thanks you so much for this information. My son is almost five years old. He enjoys watching a video or TV everyday day to “chill out” as he puts it. It’s either a Disney video or a kids TV show. Overall, I would say he watches, at the most 1-1/2 – 2 (if he’s watching a video) hours. Is this too much? If so, what is the recommended amount of time allowed for a 5 year to watch a videos or TV per day? BTW, when he is not watching anything, we read or play games, or go for walks, etc.
FYI, my son is bilingual. His father is German and speaks mostly German to him, and I am American and speak only English to him. Incredibly,as your study showed, he speaks without any accent in both languages. I think all children should learn 2 languages as babies. We live in Germany, and all of the kids here must learn English in the school. Unfortunately, they don’t start this until 4th grade. Wouldn’t it be great if English were incorporated into their schooling from the start! Unfortunately, the laws here are so stringent that changing the system would be close to impossible. So, I am doing what I can by teaching English to German kids (ages 3-5) through singing, playing, etc. with a company called Club K (Club Kids). I am also putting together (at my home) an English outdoor play group for German kids ages 3-5..where we would play more active games like duck, duck goose, tag, red rover, etc. Of course, I would only speak English so that the children become more familiar with the language. And,my son can be a part of it using his English language skills as well. I hope it makes a difference in these children’s lives!!!
Once again, enjoyed your speech and useful information.
Keep up the good work for our kids!!!
Very interesting. I wish we had access to something like that here for our children. But in our part of the US, everyone speaks English. I have thought about inviting a foreign exchange student, but I am not sure where to start.
It is quite a scary phenomenon. My daughter watched no TV at all until age 2 (although I do have the morning news on when I’m getting ready in the mornings, so she did have exposure to that and to advertisements). We’ve recently started letting her watch Dora the Explorer when she’s not feeling well, but maximum three episodes per day, and on Netflix, so no ads. And on long car trips, we’ve found she gets so bored she screams and cries, so we caved in and got an in-car DVD player. She watches Finding Nemo over and over, which is probably worse than Dora because the action is so much faster and the scene changes more rapid.
As soon as she’d seen them once, she kept asking for them again. Every day: “Watch? Dora? Watch?” and when she hears we’re going in the car, “Watch? Fish? Man?”
We will try to keep it limited, and on days when she’s not sick and we don’t go in the car, I hope to keep it down to zero. On the other hand I don’t want her going to school and being that one weird kid whose parents don’t let her watch TV…!!!
Deborah Sleeman says
@E. Ai B. I think there is truth in both positions. TV and other screen media rewire young brains in ways we aren’t commonly aware of. The research is there and has been for decades – it is only becoming widely known in recent years. By being aware of how we use screens in our homes and lives, and by emphasizing non-screen activities throughout childhood, we can ensure that when they are older our children can take advantage of the good side of it. Screens should be seasoning, not the main dish.
Excellent, thought-provoking article and video resource! Thanks, Seattle Mama Doc!
Natalie's advocate says
How on earth did these researchers get these mice to watch television in the first place?
I think your response is very insightful. I actually have his book, and he goes into much more depth about how TV can be useful to children.
It’s worth the read:
\The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids\
I’ve always said that if the choice is between your sanity and letting your young children watch television, it’s a better choice to let them watch TV! It’s just good to be informed about the possible effects, and especially to make better choices about what we let our kids watch.
Lola Vanslette says
I find it fascinating that every time the subject of attention and attention-deficit come up, tv seems to always have a part in it, but, I didn’t grow up on TV, I would rather read or be doing something, and yet, I still had ADHD growing up and still have adult adhd. So where did it come from? I didn’t even start playing video games until I was in my 20’s.
My grand daughter loves Nemo, Aladdin, Toy Story and the movie version of Charlotte’s web, and will mimic them for hours after watching. We’ve learned to rotate them because she could follow the videos nearly word for word even if she is in another room just listening while she plays. It got to the point that she didn’t have to have them on for days and would still recite lines from them with her stuffed animals. So I think, to some extent, videos are great to help expand their vocabulary when they are at this age, as long as the vocabulary they are exposed to isn’t detrimental. Watching, or even listening, to the news would be a different subject simply because of all the bad news and adrenaline the reporters put into a subject makes the bad stand out even more.
Just an opinion, but not all TV is bad.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
I don’t know of a research study that shows that children acquire more language when watching TV. What first comes to mind is the movie “Splash” from the 80’s. Remember that? Where the non-verbal mermaid learns to speak English by watching TV. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088161/
It doesn’t happen that way. Only in the movies….
In fact, we know children’s language development is impaired even when ambient TV is on more and more during the day.
read this: https://www.seattlechildrens.org/media/press-release/2009/06/004760/
Dear Lola – yes, I agree, not all TV is bad. But imho Dr. Christakis does not mean that all TV (and thus films, anything on a screen) is bad, especially not for adults who have (hopefully) learned to watch and consume media appropriately. Rather, he states that a little child’s brain cannot cope with the immense flow and speed of changing pictures / scenes / actions on TV. Letting children watch TV at a young age (0-3/4 years) simply is not good for their mental development, their attention span later on etc.
Of course, parents who are \well-off\ may have more money to go visit museums etc.. But any parent could read a book to their child, or simply turn off the TV. I personally think it’s a choice we adults have to make. Letting our children watch TV makes life much easier – we don’t need to watch them all the time, don’t need to entertain them… But is that really worth it in the long run?
As a teacher I can see the result of children not being able to sit still or stay concentrated for more than 3 minutes on a daily basis. That’s why I’d be glad if some parents took Dr.Christakis’ advice seriously…
oh, I’m really sorry! I was actually replying to E. Ai B.’s post, not to Lola’s…
I’d love to see something on the effects of ambient, non-violent adult programming, and I’m always bummed that these studies don’t talk so much about that. My husband and I are always wondering if the 6:00 news, Wheel of Fortune & Millionaire, which we have playing in the background while we make dinner, play with our 6-month-old son, etc are having unintended consequences. Certainly it’s constant sound, which can’t be ideal (we try to keep the volume low’ish), but I do notice him craning his neck from his exersaucer to get a better look at Meredith Viera. Has anybody seen solid info on this kind of ambient exposure?
Sara T says
My husband and I decided to scale back TV watching for my 3 year old when we found her time in front of it creeping up and up. I also have tried to be mindful of showing shows where everyone treats everyone with kindness (Dora, Wiggles etc). When he showed a clip in this video of Mr Rogers I was shocked that I never thought of finding episodes of that show. It doesn’t appear to be on TV anymore but it is online on PBS kids. Watching the show today after so many years brought tears to my eyes (I am a huge softy when it comes to Mr Rogers). My daughter appeared to enjoy it too. I love the way he talks slowly, stares right at the screen and says such nice things. Because it is on my laptop (which I do not trust her with), it will be a show we can watch together. That alone was worth watching this video! Thanks for all the good advice.
Khanh Linh says
Would you comment on this?
“children with a BMI above the 50th percentile are prone to be overweight by adolescence.” Thanks
Children with early-onset obesity in childhood including those with a BMI above the 85th percentile between the ages of 24 and 54 months have a 5-fold greater likelihood of being overweight at age 12. In addition, children with a BMI above the 50th percentile are prone to be overweight by adolescence.  Children who are already obese at age 8 years will tend to have more severe obesity, as well as increased morbidity as an adult
Headphones and walking are dangerous combo, study finds
People who wear headphones might want to ditch them while walking outside. A study finds that accidents involving pedestrians wearing the devices have tripled in recent years.
All things in moderation. Television will not make your child smarter. But on rainy days and when you have to keep them in, or when you have to get SOMETHING DONE it can be a useful tool. I find that my toddler gets restless with the silence when it’s just he and I at home. And in those instances I will put music on. He does love PBS. I do try to watch content for what’s appropriate and not too flashy / violent / or nonsensical. Either way … we all know that reading to our kids, spending time with our kids, playing with our kids is way better for them than sitting them in front of the television.
The line about taking your kid to a museum is just sort of elitest and offensive. They couldn’t have put taking him to a park, instead? Just a small aquarium nearby was $18 a person. That’s ridiculous and just not possible to do more than once.
TV is always harrassed for causing ADD (the evidence is pretty damning) but what about the other things that our kids are constantly exposed to? Two income households … I read something the other day that most kids under the age of 5 are in some sort of daycare or afterschool program … how are those kids watching so much television? And what does the impact of overstimulated play with dozens of other kids have on development? Are they better? Are they actively learning more? Are they more social? How do the varying levels of care (daycare/babysitter/parent) affect development and social skills? Not saying any one of those groups is doing a bad job, but how does all that change impact synapses and brain development? If all things have an impact, what’s the impact of those things? Always going from here, to there, to here and back again, and being home only to sleep and eat one meal … this is a reality for most parents who are doing their best to make it by.
My point is that the entire picture needs to be looked at when blaming something for ADD and ADHD. Not just television.
Next time one of the zoos, aquariums, museums, or science centers hits you up for a donation to enable less fortunate families to participate, send them a check and you will help make Dr Christakis a little bit less of an elitist. At their current level of funding, every museum in the Seattle area has a free day. Our local children’s museum was free every Friday afternoon but because of funding shortfalls had to cut back to being free to only 1 Friday afternoon per month. However, ALL of these organizations provide a way for you to donate specifically so that you can sponsor a membership for a poor family or provide scholarships for poor kids.
I’m really interested in the socioeconomic class dynamics of this study, which are only touched upon briefly in the video. I understand that the piece of the experiment about the pace of media viewed may be relatively independent of class, but it seems to me that other factors that correlate with low-income can also explain attention deficits in older children.
I guess another way of putting it is – ask a different question. If your answer is “turn off the television!” but you haven’t asked why children are watching, then part of the conversation is missing. It’s not true that “every parent can read a book to their child” – some parents aren’t literate, or aren’t literate in the same language as the books that are available for their children to read; some parents have substance abuse problems; some parents work double or triple shifts; some parents can’t afford books, or a trip to the library (because it takes time to get there, and either gas or bus fare if it’s not within walking distance, and heaven forfend you forget to return a book on time); some parents are more concerned with getting dinner on the table and need the kids to please just sit down and be still for twenty minutes.
The bit about the effects of the pace of a particular show was really interesting, though.
Ane Nowicki says
The video is very interesting and informative. I am a full time nanny of 2 boys. I have been taking care of them since birth. The oldest was not exposed to tv until close to age 2, but it was much harder to keep the younger one away from the tv when his brother was allowed to watch. We have always tried to keep their tv time under 1 hour a day and they are both very active kids, but even then I think their attention spans have suffered. Most of their toys make sounds or light up which is over-stimulating too. Their mom just recently let them start watching Power Rangers, which in my opinion is too violent for 5.5 and 3.5 years olds (they don’t watch it with me!). Their behavior has become more aggressive since being introduced to the show. I definitely agree that tv has a strong influence on kids today. I’m not saying that tv isn’t great for those times when you just need a break- I am totally guilty of that. I just wish there was more quality tv like Mister Rogers for them to watch. I can’t imagine my boys enjoying it- it would be too slow and boring. Just watching that clip makes me so sad because I used to love Mister Rogers!
can you give us research papers support what you say on tv effects doctor? with its links please
Beth Ann Vaughn says
My husband I have raised two wonderful kids – they are 17 and 20. We had to really “dig” to find information like this when our kids were babies. We discovered this information when our 1st born was three and we already owned the entire set of “Barny” videos and had even gone to see “Barny Live.” Once we understood the information in this video we stopped all exposure to video and television. Zero. As the kids got older we occasionally (3-4 x per year) had a Family video night where we all sat down and watched together. But ZERO media allowed them to explore much better activities, music, make believe, building blocks. My kids went on to become makers of their own films, artists, Eventually amazing musicians – their own rock band, a CD on iTunes before he was 17. You name it. Never a dull moment for them – and my husband and I never had to “entertain” them, they never said “I’m bored.” They both have embraced school – very self made – manage their own schedules and both get straight A’s in a top school. I attribute much of this to the time and attention we paid to their early child hood development. The information in this video is so so key. I wish there was a way to make it mandatory – a must view before you can check your newborn out of the hospital… Thanks for sharing this!
Monica Leigh says
Maybe there are some things that I am just ignorant of or that the speaker “dumbed down” so that people would understand, but some of these points kind of confuse me.
First of all, this so called attention problem that is plaguing students seems to be the adaptive ability of children to respond to a faster paced world. Television is not the only thing that is moving more quickly. The rate of change of technology, entertainment, knowledge being uncovered is all changing very rapidly. Calling this response to the over stimulating reality that exists today an attention problem and labeling it a bad thing seems to be counter productive to me.
We don’t all live on the farm; most of us live in fast paced cities and towns.
Second, when mice explore more towards the middle of the field, doesn’t that mean that those mice would be more likely to get the food?
These are sincere questions that I have. For science!
I am doing a Science Project on this I just want to say thanks because it gave me a lot of information
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Great– tell us about the project
Mel Dolezel says
I feel like the crappiest mom ever. Thank you for the video. I have started working on a research paper about our children and television and came across your video. My husband and I are very active with our children and they in no way get four hours of tv time daily but I feel like I blew it with the whole properly stimulating the brain. My son is seven and he does have attention problems. My husband and I have tremendously reduced tv and gaming time we have googled things to help us with properly stimulating his brain but I was curios do you have any pointers or tips on possible reversal or do we just try and strengthen the brain by trying to work the left side? Maybe a crazy question and maybe I need to keep googling but thought it doesnt hurt to ask. Thanks
From my blog post on this important research:
“Until now, animal studies have never been done on the effects of television. I guess for the obvious reason that animals just aren’t interested in watching TV. This has been a huge disadvantage as animal studies have been essential for establishing that a whole host of things, from abuse, to cigarettes, to lead poisoning, to malnutrition are all bad for the developing brain.”
“But then, Dr. Dimitri Christakis made a brilliant leap, and thought why not look at the effects of background TV on young mice. Since 2008 a handful of studies have shown that even background TV has at least short-term negative effect on young children. But what about the long term effects of background TV? It would be unethical to do experiments on young human children looking the effects of large amounts of background TV throughout their early years. And yet, in real life there is a substantial subset of young children who are being exposed to 4 to 8 hours of background TV every day.”
Hello. I am a new RN. My neighbor has two young children, both with communication difficulties (Asperger’s, autism). She blames these problems on mercury from her fillings affecting them in the womb. I suggested she read up on TV’s effects on infants and young children. I believe there is plenty of bonafide evidence pointing to TV rather than to mercury from fillings and vaccinations. But realizing TV is the culprit would be admitting personal responsibility in the matter. And this is difficult.
I am alarmed at the blaming of mercury and the consequent choices not to vaccinate. Especially considering recent outbreaks of measles, pertussis, etc. Decades of vaccination diligence are going down the drain.
Thank you for your info.
New York Neurology says
Glad I read this piece. It has a lot of good advice for parents. Definitely will implement it in my own household.
I came accross your video just now. I am mother of 23 mths old boy. As we are living alone. ANd my husband working in different language state. No friends or know any kids of his age. Almost cold outside. We spend time (me and kid) alone at home, so i let him watch movie (cartoon)… As he grows now only through website i came to know i shouldnt let my son watch Tv or video, so limited to 30 mins per day. Now a days, untile he see me having mobile, he never ask to watch movie, he simply play with toys. He is not understanding any of my or my husbands talk. Less eye contact but if i sing some song with action, he watch my hand movements and little my face and try it afterwords….. He love cars and like to watch people outside.
BAsically he dont turn when i call him. i strongly feel that he dosent know that was his name.
Has limited eye contact, but looks deep into eyes sometimes.
Dosent seems listening as if i am talking to someone else.
but hearing sseems good as he turn to every smalll noises.
he himself was telling few proper words in tamil (may be 5, without knowing its meaning)… but now lot and lot of babbling and talking on his own.
few good thngs were,
1. He is good at identifying simalar objects
2. He fixe broken fruits together
3. Good memory power, when he saw a car in tv, run and bring it, he remembers which book had which images (he like few so he see it daily, taking the correct book)
4. Usage of objects is good (handling pen to scribble or toys)
he is very craze about cars (he dont line up toys or focused on parts of de toys)
5. Imitate talking in cellphone and clap along with us, shake body for any music, feeding us while he eats fruits, drinking from a cup
6. He try my actions few while i sing songs, if we both sing together he ll be more happy to listen and make actions
7. seeing pictures in book and trying some like arms up, open your mouth
8. very good at running, jumping, kicking ball
9. he love me kissing, cuddling very much….. he is very lovable and happy child
Please suggest me how to make my kid normal, like other kids. Please suggest….
Neither i know nor through other i dont know that TV watching affects baby brain, is ther recovery for this Doctor. Awaiting your reply …..
Hi Amutha! I just read your post and it is so similar to the behavior of my 23 months old boy.. I am really curious to know how ur boy is doing now and how did u help him listen when u call out his name and help him pay attention to what u say.. Even my boy doesn’t look into my eyes when I talk to him which is delaying his speech I guess.. I will love to be in contact with you.. My mail id is firstname.lastname@example.org.. Hope to hear from u..