Videos before age 2? Don't do it! By Jennifer Mangan

This month I am going to switch hats. I can no longer ignore the growing pile of videos aimed at kids under 2 stacked in the corner of my office. Parents need to know the reasons why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strict media guidelines for our children.

If you have taken your child to the pediatrician's office lately perhaps you noticed the doctor asking questions about your child's habits, including how much time is spent watching television, videos, playing video games or sitting in front of a computer. Depending on the child's age, the pediatrician may even ask the child, rather than you.

The academy suggests clear limits on viewing time. Even one hour of screen time a day is a lot for preschoolers with one to two hours maximum for older children. These recommendations are part of the academy's 1997 Media Matters campaign, where pediatricians were asked to expand their role with families to become media literacy educators to teach parents the influence and power that mass media have over families' choices.

Doctors were asked to make parents aware that not only do these various media have an effect on children but so do the messages sent through those media, which help shape a child's understanding of the world. Parents should also recognize mass media are influenced by financial and political considerations.

Those media messages can also contribute to serious public health issues with children, which is why pediatricians found the issue so compelling.

Two years later, the academy announced a policy that urges parents to avoid all screen entertainment for children under 2. The policy says: "While certain television programs may be promoted for this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills."

The policy also suggests that children's room be media free, without televisions or computers and that parents should avoid using media as an electronic babysitter. Simply put, television distracts and deters from what a baby fundamentally needs to grow.

I don't know about you but I am guilty as charged.

When my kids were little, I sometimes used TV and videos as a babysitter. I thought it was a treat for them to spend time with Big Bird and little Elmo. I needed to disconnect and recharge. What I didn't know is that it was my kids who needed to unplug. Television is stimulating for a child, not relaxing.

During the 1990s when I wrote the Family TV column for the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, I knew too much TV wasn't good, but I was more focused on content, not the developing brain.

Jane Healy is an educational psychologist and author of of several books on children's brain development and learning.

In an article for the AAP News titled "Understanding TV's Effects on the Developing Brain," Healy writes extensively about how neuroscientists have found that a child's experiences or lack of experiences will dictate how the brain develops or doesn't develop. She says that during these first two years, the brain cells connect determining who the child will be and what he is capable of doing. These connections between brain cells allow us to solve problems and figure things out.

Consequently, if a child's brain experiences repeated exposure to a TV screen, it may have a bad effect on those connections and the child's mental and emotional growth.

A young brain thrives with attention, touch, communication and consistent interaction with a loving adult. Healy points out that without these ingredients, brain connections are undernourished and develop in a disorganized manner causing problems with language, cognitive and social development.

Eye contact, talking, snuggling and holding your child close reinforces love and connection. This critical bonding enables your child to feel loved and secure, have more capacity to control his or her own emotional states and keeps his or her brain challenged throughout the day.

So, as I watch the piles of videos aimed at babies grow in the corner of my office I don't feel a bit guilty about not recommending them to readers. That's not to say that if you let your toddler watch an age-appropriate video or television program now and then, they will end up with poor social, emotional and cognitive skills-mine didn't. But my older kids did develop bad media habits that I am still working on today. If you let your toddler watch a program, be sure to watch the program with them. Don't encourage your child to be a spectator. Remember that viewing is not doing. Ask questions, interact and have fun with the message.

There's plenty of time for "Sesame Street," "Barney" and Baby Einstein videos. Our babies are only infants for a short time.



Jennifer Mangan is a writer who lives in the western suburbs with her husband and four children, ages 17, 16, 13 and 12.



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