Q&A: television with babies

Shandra writes:

"Can you talk a bit about your approach to television?  We don't get any channels on ours (no cable and we're in a dead zone for plain old airwaves), but my husband and I do watch dvds a couple of times a week (we like films) and enjoy that downtime - especially a pizza-and-movie dinner once or twice a month.

Up until now I haven't worried much about it, but for the last month or so I've restricted the movies our 6 month old is awake for (or for part of) to movies that don't have a lot of screaming or loud horrible things. It seemed to me that he was starting to watch the screen, even though we kind of had him turned the other way on the floor with toys. My husband doesn't completely agree this is necessary yet and has had the baby play in front of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Do you think we should be really choosy about the movie if we keep chilling out on Friday nights with a movie and pizza? Should we only watch them after he's asleep? Is it okay to have a movie night ritual with a child under two even if the AAP says no tv at all?  And what are you finding with your older boy, is television really important to social stuff with kids? If we keep the set off are we going to doom him to miserable play times?"

I hate television. I think it's almost completely bad for kids. I think it changes brain waves in babies, I think it makes toddlers and preschoolers squirrelly and hyperactive, I think it sucks up a ton of time that could be spent being friends with real live people and doing actual fun things. But we watch TV here all the time.

I wish I could quit television for myself. I don't watch too many shows regularly--just Lost, ER (still), What Not To Wear, and Entourage--but if I'm alone in the living room I always turn it on, "just to check the weather." And then I end up watching. The easy solution would be to get rid of our TV, but I can't even imagine that for myself.

I used to hold the line against TV pretty well when my older son was little. I completely scorned those Baby Fill-in-the-name-of-a-famous-genius-here videos as marketing and hype--as if watching a video could possibly be helpful to a 4-month-old. I kept the TV off all day, until the magic 5 pm hour came and I just couldn't take it anymore until my husband got home from work. Even then I only watched the Food Network, reasoning that it was educational, and was almost like having another person in the room just talking to us, and not too stimulating.

Eventually we started watching a little Sesame Street or Mister Rogers (oh, how he loved Mr. Rogers!) in the morning. Maybe a Sesame Street DVD from the library or two (but it was OK! because they helped him learn his letters and numbers!). And at the age of 2 he already knew that you were supposed to smash a clove of garlic with the flat side of a knife to get the skin to peel off easily. So I was still smug and self-congratulatory.

But then I got pregnant with #2 and spent a winter enervated and pukey on the couch with a boy who needed some distracting. And TV became my best friend (cue the Rolling Stones "Mother's Little Helper"). I'd fall asleep on the couch to the opening music to "Clifford" and wake up to the closing theme music from "Jakers!: The Adventures of Piggly Winks." I'd struggle us out side to go do something real, but then when we came home I'd collapse and he'd watch Dora while I tried to hold it together.

After the baby came, I needed TV to allow me to put the him down for a nap without having the bigger one keep coming in repeatedly "to see what the baby's doing, Mom." I'm still kind of smug about it, though. It's DVDs of shows we like, a couple of PBS or Noggin shows (not all of them every day!), and Food Network. I do think some of the things he watches teach him things that he absorbs easily because they're animated--letters, the consonant clusters ch and sh, what a negative number is--but they also make him disconnect from the rest of what's going on in the world.

So that's my confessional. I hate TV, but I use it. It makes me feel like a crappy mom that I use TV so much, but it allows me to be a decent mom in other areas, so I'm trying to simultaneously cut down and make my peace with it.

Now, to your specific questions:

I really would try to limit the violent or scary (and scary music certainly counts) things your son sees and hears, and he's definitely old enough to pick up on mood and tone if not actual content. So yes, be very choosy. I'm assuming in a few months he'll probably have shifted to an earlier bedtime anyway so it won't be much of an issue as you can just watch when he's asleep.

I think it does do some damage to little babies to watch TV (yes, even those dumb baby videos that are supposed to make them smarter. If you need to use them to get a shower, fine, but don't try to convince yourself that they're actually doing anything good), but how much? No one knows, so I guess you just have to try to find some balance you're comfortable with. If you really want him to be part of the movie night then that's where your line is. As long as he gets real caring attention from you when the TV's not on, he's in better shape than kids are who have no TV exposure but also not as much focused attention from adults.

There's also something to be said for teaching kids media literacy from an early age. I started talking with my older one even before he was 2 about what commercials were and what they were trying to convince us to do. We still play the what are they trying to sell us, does this commercial make us want to buy it, is it a good deal, is it a useful product that we need, should we buy it? game at least a few times a week.

Are you dooming a kid with no TV exposure to a difficult social life? Certainly not by the time he's 4 (the age my experience goes up to). Kids all seem to recognize the animated and licensed characters whether they've seen the shows or not. My son recognized Shrek two full years before he saw even a tiny part of a Shrek movie. One of my son's friends lives in a house with no TV, yet she knows who Dora, Boots, Diego, and Backpack are. Your son will be able to talk about the characters and play the pretend games just fine at the younger ages. Maybe once the kids are older and knowledge of actual storylines comes into play he'll run into problems, but that's a long way off.

I say stick to your guns, and keep the guns out of any TV your kid sees at this age.

Here's a list of the DVDs we've seen (many of them from the library) and like:

Sesame Street Learning About Letters --Old-school sketches from the pre-Elmo days teaching the alphabet.
Sesame Street Learning About Numbers -- Same as the letters DVD, but with numbers.

Bear in the Big Blue House Potty Time -- Love the trippy Shadow song, and the Toileteers song is unfortunately catchy. Plus it helps maintain interest in using the potty.

The Muppet Show Season 1 -- Funny, and kids certainly won't understand it, but they'll like it. You'll probably have to explain why the gorilla tries to destroy Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's lab, and Miss Piggy gives someone a karate chop in one episode, but overall it's harmless and silly.

The Best of The Electric Company -- It will all be worthwhile when you hear your preschooler walking around singing "ch, ew, chew! doot doo doo doo doot."

Wallace and Gromit in Three Amazing Adventures -- The shorts are suspenseful crime mysteries and are definitely not for kids under the age of 3 or 3 1/2, but 4-year-olds love them. The full-length feature "Curse of the Were-Rabbit" has a ton of guns and shooting, though, so skip that one for now.

Herbie Fully Loaded -- The new one with Lindsay Lohan. It's cute and there are enough racing scenes to keep most car fans happy. Do not rent the old Herbie movies. They move much more slowly and there's actually a surprising amount of violence (slapstick things of people bonking each other on the head, etc.) and people yelling insults at each other. I could have done without being called an "idiot!" because my son saw it on the original Herbie movie (and then had mightmares about our building being knocked down with a wrecking ball). The new one has none of that.

Drumline -- Predictable plot, but this story of a kid from the big city who goes to an historically black college and makes it on the marching band drumline has some truly amazing drumming and dancing scenes, with no cursing or violence. There are a couple of sexual innuendos that would go right over the head of any kid younger than 7-8, and a scene in which two men yell at each other, but that's it. We've watched the final drum-off again and again, and we always drum along.

That Thing You Do! -- Totally goofy, sweet movie about a garage band in Erie, Pennsylvania, that has a one-hit wonder in the 60s. Cute, silly music and amazing production design.

Anything you want to recommend in favor of or against?