Are your rugrats babysat by the TV? Dr. Linda Pagani of the University of Montreal, who just completed an extensive study of the long-term effects of toddler TV viewing, says they might suffer for it later.

“Basically, too much time in front of the telly creates a time-debt for other enriching activities,” Pagani told The Speaker. “In early childhood children need live interaction to help their brains develop and to maximize their emotional intelligence. It is like IQ, we are born with a potential, but need interactions with people and objects in the environment to fully develop it. More television time means less time for play and less time in active social exchanges of ideas and information.”

In their most recent research, Pagani and her team surveyed the experience of almost 2,000 Canadian children and their parents, and found that kids were likely to be bullied in sixth grade an extra 11% for every 53 minutes of daily TV viewing at 29 months of age.

Not only were kids more likely to be bullied, but early television viewing was also found to be associated with deficits in problem solving ability, emotional control, peer play competence, social contact ability, and eye-contact — which is important for friendship and self-affirmation in relationships.

Dr. Linda Pagani

Dr. Linda Pagani

“Watching the telly is not an effortful activity, and thus it fosters lifestyle habits that are less energetic and there is less of a tolerance for more demanding interactions on a social level. It also does not hone shared eye contact, for which we are wired at birth. Therefore, less effortful interactions mean less activities that foster and reinforce shared eye contact. Eye contact is the most powerful mode of information exchange apart from talking and one reinforces the other.”

So how should a child’s day be broken up? Pagani referred to the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, a professional association dedicated to the health and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults. Half of the 24 hours of their day should be spent sleeping, eating, and tending to hygiene, according to the AAP, which leaves 12 hours to fill. Of those 12 hours children should get no more than 1 to 2 hours of television per day. She pointed out, though, that the recommendations relate particularly to quality TV viewing time.

“Assuming the content is of quality not more than two hours per day for over age 2,” Pagani advised, “and try to favor other pastimes that involve interaction between the child and others, and add some creative play to that too.”

Pagani had a simple suggestion for busy parents who wanted to mitigate the negative effects of occupying their toddlers with television: “Lots of social interaction.”

Pagani also offered some broader context for understanding the role of television in the lives of children:

“Television is effortless — is this the kind of natural habit we want our children to develop? The brain is like a muscle and social, cognitive, and motor sedentariness (effortlessness) is detrimental to its architecture.

“Our previous research has shown that excessive televiewing has a long-term negative influence on children’s bio-psycho-social well-being,” Pagani told us, referring to a wealth of past research she and her team had completed, “therefore the AAP guidelines which discourage any viewing prior to age 2 and not more than two hours beyond age 2 are there to favor conditions for brain development and (intellectual, social, and physical) non-sedentary lifestyle habits.”

Too Much Television? Prospective Associations Between Early Childhood Televiewing and Later Self-Reports of Victimization By Sixth Grade Classmates” was published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

By Cheryl Bretton