Baby experts have been saying TV is bad for little brains for at least a decade. A lot of parents believe it's good.
A study slated for release today in the journal Pediatrics says they both are wrong.
Screen time does not help babies younger than 2 learn, but small amounts don't hurt them either, according to the study by researchers at the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School.
The surprising new research isn't likely to be the last word on babies and TV. It's a controversial subject that has moved to the forefront of family conversations in recent years, as the number of television shows and videos marketed to infants has grown and parental time pressures have increased.
Researchers say the study might give guidance to moms and dads who, by choice or necessity, have been flipping on Sesame Street every morning at home or popping in a Baby Einstein video every afternoon in the car.
"We didn't find any evidence of harm, but I want to be quick to point out that we didn't find any evidence of benefit either," said Marie Evans Schmidt, a study author. "We don't want this to become a license for parents to put babies in front of the TV. We know the results run counter to the perception a lot of parents have about TV. A lot let their babies watch TV because they think it's good for their brain development."
Schmidt said past research on infants younger than 2 is limited but has shown that TV and videos do not help language and cognitive skills and that the screen time can lead to problems with obesity, sleep and attention later in life. For the study, data was collected on nearly 900 babies in their first two years, and at age 3 they were tested for language and visual motor skills. Adjustments were made for outside factors such as maternal education.
The babies in the study had been watching only a little more than an hour of TV a day on average in their first two years of life. The average among babies in general is about two to three hours. That's the quantity at which TV viewing may more clearly become detrimental, researchers said.
So Schmidt, as a researcher and a mother of two, said her advice to parents is: "Limit TV to what's possible for you."
What was possible for her was no TV for her first baby, but the occasional 15 minutes to 30 minutes of TV for the second because the first one was watching.
Some parents say that while they can't prove TV and videos have been helpful for their babies' development, they also aren't yet sure that they are not.
Andrea Kirby Ormiston of Westminster, a lawyer, began allowing her baby a half-hour of Sesame Street so she could get ready for work. Turned out, the baby started talking before she turned 1 and could say her ABCs and recognize numbers and letters before she was 18 months old. She also began shouting out the letters on Sesame Street and singing with the songs.
Ormiston said she and her husband, as well as their day-care providers, would read to the baby and work with her, so it's unclear who or what gets credit for her advanced skills. But the outcome means Ormiston doesn't regret some TV, though she remains vigilant about content and time in front of a screen.
"It is no coincidence that out of her first dozen words, eight of them had to have been Sesame Street characters. Elmo, Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, Zoe, Oscar, Grover and Cookie Monster came right along with mama and dada," she said. "I don't know how that fits into the pediatric studies, but it is proof positive that she was watching and retaining from a very young age.
"I still limit television to an hour a day, but there will always be grandparents and friends who don't have the same philosophy. I feel like the key is to keep an eye on it and know what your kids are watching."
Craig Grabowski of Baltimore said his son had been watching Sesame Street, and one day at bath time, when he was about 19 months old, he reached for the lever that turns on the shower head and said, "Up." He pushed it down and said, "Down." When Grabowski asked how he knew that, "He looked at me like I was an idiot and said, 'Elmo.' And sure enough, later that week I saw the Elmo's World that talked about up and down."
Grabowksi said now that his son is 2, he and his wife have allowed him some video time, such as during a recent 13-hour drive home from Georgia. But they struggle with how much screen time they should allow.
Dimitri A. Christakis, who has researched the subject of babies' TV time but has no connection to the new study, said he wants all parents to give the matter as much thought as Ormiston and Grabowski have.
A newborn's brain triples in size in the first two years of birth, said Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children's Research Institute and author of Make Television Work for Your Kids.
Until recently, those young brains were left to develop without TV. In the 1970s, the average age kids started watching TV was 4, and today it's 4 months.
It was the advent and heavy marketing of videos, including those from Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein, in recent years that led researchers to begin studying the impact of viewing time on babies. In 1999, a committee at the American Academy of Pediatrics, on which Christakis sat, began discouraging parents from putting their babies younger than 2 in front of a TV or video screen. It will be updating the recommendation in the fall, but Christakis is not sure what it will say.
"Research is ongoing, but what we do know is, that in spite of the claims by video companies, there is absolutely no benefit of TV on infants," he said. "No study has documented educational benefits. With respect to actual harm, my own personal feeling is there is a problem, although we lack conclusive evidence."
He said that means the new study doesn't square with his research. But he agrees that the difference in impact might be related to the amount of TV kids are watching. Minimal amounts of TV might be OK for babies. An hour or so of quality shows such as Sesame Street are good for preschoolers. After that, he says, quality matters more than quantity.
Christakis began researching the effects of TV on children after becoming a parent. When he was home with his first baby, he had the TV on while he bobbed the colicky infant, and found him mesmerized by the screen. His studies left him believing too much TV is bad. But he said he understands the need for small amounts for the parents' sake, and said all families have different needs.
In his own house, even though his kids are 8 and 11, he still limits recreational TV and computer time to three hours a week and hosts movie night on Fridays.
"What parents should take from the new study is that there is no benefit for babies," he said. "When we asked parents as part of our research why they let kids watch TV, 30 percent said it was good for their child's brain. That is clearly not the case. ... But they shouldn't feel bad about judicious use."
BABIES AND TV
* Since 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended no screen time for babies younger than 2 years old.
* Recent surveys show 68 percent of children younger than 2 see TV or videos on a typical day, and a quarter have a TV in their bedroom.
* Past studies have shown a negative impact on infants watching TV.
* The new study looked at the viewing habits of 872 children younger than 2 and tested them at age 3 for language and visual motor skills.
* The study found no effect, good or bad, on the children's development.