Help!

The television has melted my kidís brain.

Did you know that Baby Einstein DVDs have been recalled? You’ve heard of the Toyota recall, no? Well, the Baby Einstein recall is just a tad larger: Anyone who purchased a DVD from roughly mid-year 2004 to 2009 can exchange the product for a book or music CD.

You see, DVDs for infants have not been proven educational. More so, some research has found that such DVDs and television programs can stunt the mental development of kids, especially under the age of 2. They can depress language skills, ruin attention spans and lead to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Holy 2-year-old brain melt, Batman! What are we doing to our kids?

Relax. I have some good news for you. The fact is, the only time parents ever hear anything about the effects of media on kids is when there is something shocking to talk about. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as the old saying about news journalism goes. This by the way is a great reason to turn off the evening news in the presence of your 4 year old.

Parents never hear about the results of media effects research because it is mostly buried deep in academic journal publications that use obscure terms like “logistic regression” and “inter-item correlation.” Not exactly edge-of-your-seat reading. But, given my academic and professional training, I decided I would write a book on the subject for parents that is non-academic, easy to understand and has no headline-grabbing tendencies.

I found three things in my review of the research. First, research shows both good effects and bad effects of media. Second, the headline-grabbing bad effects are based on fairly limited research with really small effect sizes (more on that in a second). Finally, there is a heck of a lot more that we don’t know about how media affects children than what we do know.

With regard to all these headlines about television ruining your child’s tender developing brain, parents must realize that the actual research is tentative at best because of something called effect size. Take headache medicine. It’s one thing to say that “pill x lessens your headache.” It’s another to say, “pill x lessens your headache by 4 percent.” When I have a near-migraine, 4 percent just doesn’t matter.

The same is true for the effects of media. One particularly scary news article I once read asserted that for each hour of television that children ages 2-3 watched, the chances of developing ADHD increased by 10 percent.

Seems pretty scary, no? Well, lets look at the facts. About 10 percent of 7 year olds are diagnosed with ADHD, and the average 2-3 year old is watching about 1½ to 2½ hours of television a day. What the research is finding is that for every hour over the about two hours that your child watches television, the chance of developing ADHD increases 10 percent above this baseline.

Let’s say a child watches three hours of television. This child has a 10 percent baseline, plus a 10 percent increase above the baseline of getting ADHD. If you do the math, 10 percent of 10 percent is only 11 percent. This is not an earth-shattering increase.

That said, I would never tell you to play dice with your kids. On the other hand, it seems to me that losing sleep over the fact that little Johnny watched an extra show yesterday does not seem worth the worry.

Indeed, more recent research has noted that educational television appears to have no effect at all in developing ADHD. Rather, it’s the fast-paced, non-educational, superhero-type programming that appears to be driving this small effect.

In actuality, research on toddlers and television is in its infancy. Also, research on preschoolers regularly reveals that educational television does work for kids ages 3 to 7 and older. Such programming can enhance everything from math and language skills to pro-social behavior.

What should parents take away from the current research? First off, kids who watch a lot of television, say at least four or more hours a day, are more at risk for all of the problems mentioned in this article. And importantly, the one element that most often determines whether your children watch this much television is whether they have TVs in their bedrooms. If they do, take it out of there. Televisions belong in the living room. Second, educational television probably doesn’t do much for your 2 year old. However, it can do a lot for your 4 year old. Limit shows like Sponge Bob and stick to educational television. Lastly, mix it up: Kids thrive when media is part of their overall daily diet of activity, including physical play, coloring and other activities that don’t involve screen time.

The media can be a positive or a negative influence on your kids. Its up to parents to lay the ground rules to maximize the good and limit the bad.