The good news is infants won't be irrevocably damaged by spending some time in front of a television. The bad news is it won't help them either, say researchers with the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston.
The new study of nearly 900 mothers and toddlers showed no significant difference in cognitive test scores between kids who had watched television under the age of 2 and those who hadn't, breaking with prior studies that showed a demonstrably negative outcome.
"We were surprised," says Dr. Marie Evans Schmidt, a developmental psychologist and the lead author of the study. "We had hypothesized that (TV watching) would have a measurable negative effect, but it didn't."
The study, published in the March issue of the journal Pediatrics, concluded that television viewing was independent of other factors in child cognitive development. It found that, although toddlers who watched more television frequently had lower test scores, the disparity was due to the factors that influenced higher TV-watching rates-not the watching itself.
Evans Schmidt concedes that the study is not completely comprehensive. "We only looked at the quantity of TV viewed, not what they were watching," she says. "We suspect that that would have made a difference."
But Dr. Michael Rich, director of CMCH and a co-author of the study, says the research is a blow to marketers who claim their "baby videos" can improve mental development in infants. Rich adds that the study reinforces, rather than undermines, the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children under 2 not watch TV.
"Television still is not as good a stimulus for optimal brain development as other things that the child can be doing with that time," he says.
He recommends three alternatives to television for improving infants' mental growth: having them engage in face-to-face interaction with other people, allowing them to influence their environment (such as playing with a rattle or other toy) and encouraging open-ended play that promotes creativity and problem-solving skills.
"Better than putting the kids in front of something that will drill them on their alphabet, give them a stack of paper and crayons," Rich suggests.