Is Watching TV ACTUALLY Bad for Toddlers? What You Need to Know

I’m guilty.

Even after hearing everyone tell me about how bad “screen time” is, I still let my not-quite-2-year-old daughter watch TV.

I instinctively know it isn’t good, but sometimes it just fits so perfectly into your day.

You’re trying to get something done.  They want to be entertained.

And there’s this magical box (okay, we’re not in the 90’s anymore – it’s more like a magical window) that will allow all of that to happen.

But then there’s this voice in your head that reminds you: “TV is bad for kids. Don’t get your toddler hooked on watching TV at such a young age.

I know.  Thanks little voice in my head for reminding me.

Even though I’m pretty sure that TV watching is a bad thing, I wanted to research this a bit more.  Is it ACTUALLY bad? How bad is it? What about short periods of watching?

Let’s dig into it.

The Problem with TV

Before we even talk specifically about toddlers, let’s just talk in general about some of the problems with TV.

1) It can take the place of more productive or educational activities.

There’s obviously a balance to strike here, but if you spend the lion share of your free time watching TV, there’s a good chance you’re spending less time on things that are more productive.

For example, you probably read fewer books.  You probably work on fewer DIY projects.  You probably spend less time with friends and family.

2) It can lead to a less healthy lifestyle.

Aside from those of you who watch TV while running on a treadmill, watching TV is usually correlated with being less healthy.

When you watch TV, you’re usually sitting.  If you watch a lot of TV, you probably don’t exercise as much as you could.

And if you’re like me, you probably enjoy snacking while watching TV.  Sure, there are healthy snacks, but a lot of people enjoy less-than-healthy snacks while watching TV.

But…TV isn’t ALL bad.

Let’s not pretend that TV is only evil.  Believe it or not, there can be some benefits to watching TV.

1) There are educational programs.

While it’s true that reading a book is probably the “healthier” choice for becoming more educated, some people simply don’t like to read.  Or they can’t get themselves to read for long periods of time.

Therefore, I do think it’s important to recognize that there is some good programming out there, including lots of great educational TV shows and documentaries. If you’ve browsed Netflix at all recently, you’ve probably seen tons of documentaries that look interesting.

2) It’s on demand, inexpensive entertainment.

There’s a lot you can do with your free time, but some of it isn’t easy to do or it costs money.  If you have 30 minutes to kill, it’s easy and basically free to turn on an episode of your favorite TV show.

And between network TV and services like Netflix and Hulu, you don’t even need to pay for cable anymore to have a robust TV experience. (We cut cable years ago and never looked back.)

3) In moderation, it’s not going to have a negative impact on your lifestyle.

Much like everything else, moderation is key. If you enjoy TV, you can watch TV in short intervals and very likely won’t experience any noticeably negative impact on your life.

It’s no different than if you’re on a strict diet but decide to eat one donut on the weekend…it’s not great, but it’s not going to completely kill your diet.

Or, it might, if you’re the type of person to “fall off the wagon” easily (binge-watching can be an easy trap to fall into).  But that’s not what we’re discussing here.

Is watching TV ACTUALLY bad for toddlers?

Okay, so we’ve covered the good and the bad of watching TV in general.  As an adult, you’ve probably already made up your mind about whether TV is good or bad for you, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you that you must change one way or another.

But when it comes to your kids, it is early enough to make a change if you feel the need to do so.

Let’s look at some common issues that people normally talk about when they mention TV being bad for toddlers.

1) Does watching TV, and in particular, sitting close to the TV, damage their eyes?

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, this is actually a myth.  I was pretty surprised to read that too.

Growing up, I was always told my eyesight is poor because I sat too close to the TV as a child, but apparently that had nothing to do with it.  Researchers have found that there is no evidence this damages the eyes either in children or adults.

2) TV may take the place of more important activity, such as physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction.

I think this point is the core of the problem.  If your toddler is watching TV, they are most likely not listening to you or interacting with the “real world.”

TV is one-way communication.  Even if it seems like your toddler is trying to talk back to the TV, they aren’t getting the same types of reactions they would get if they were interacting with you.  Those reactions, and the general two-way communication, are important for language development.

Okay, so, plenty of bad stuff.  Are there any benefits?

Interestingly enough, the American Academy of Pediatrics, while generally anti-“screen time”, does recognize some benefits to TV (or media in general):

Both traditional and social media can provide exposure to new ideas and information, raising awareness of current events and issues. Interactive media also can provide opportunities for the promotion of community participation and civic engagement.

Important to note, of course, that this is probably geared more toward older children who can better comprehend the information they are absorbing (vs. toddlers who are learning simple words, shapes, and colors).

However, the general principle still stands: it’s exposure to new information.

Furthermore, there is research that suggests that TV can actually be educational for young children.  This study found that, after watching an educational children’s television program, toddlers could learn to count to five and learn to read a simple map presented on the show.

What’s the bottom line?

As much as I’d love to say we found some revolutionary support that watching TV is good (or at least, not bad) for toddlers, that simply isn’t the case.  While it’s not ALL bad, it’s safe to say that the negatives generally outweigh the positives.

With all of that said, I think parents need to apply common sense as with most other situations.  Just because something isn’t good doesn’t mean it’s automatically harmful.

Moderation is key, and more importantly, you have to look at the activities your child is doing when they’re not watching TV.  If they still get plenty of interaction with you, with other kids, with books, toys, etc., watching a 30-minute episode of Sesame Street while you catch up on some e-mails isn’t going to kill them.

In fact, if that 30 minutes allows you, as a parent, to catch up on some necessary tasks so that you can actually spend the rest of your time focusing on your toddler, it’s kind of beneficial to everyone.

What do you think about TV-watching for toddlers? Is it “all bad” or is there room for a little bit of TV here and there?

About Eric and Tiffany Matthews

We're Eric and Tiffany, the parents behind Cynical Parent. We're just normal parents who are navigating parenthood with both eyes wide open (probably because there's a kid yelling nearby). And of course, we're pretty cynical. Don't believe everything you read or hear, whether it's on the internet, or from a close family or friend (or even from us!). Every child is different, and what works for one may not work for another. Sometimes you just need to try and see for yourself. :)

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