The topic of TV and kids clearly invokes worry and guilt in parents. I’ve recently talked TV with two of my second time mom friends (both expressed concern about letting their 2 ½ year olds watch cartoons), and also with a dad pal who cut the cord on TV when his daughter was born, and who has been alarmed by media reports describing potential links between TV intake and autism or ADHD.
Two elements from these discussions are interesting; the first being the parental inner critic, the second being academics and media. I’ll consider each of these in turn.
Whether parental worry and guilt stems from the onslaught of parenting books, unsolicited advice from relatives, or deeper issues from our own upbringings, it certainly seems as if we err on the side of being self-critical. I certainly have wrestled with this recently, beating myself up over a few episodes of impatience with Laurel in a week otherwise replete with great interaction. In the case of my two friends, they needed that 20-minute cartoon for their kid so they could nurse their newborn or just get a break during a crazy day at home. To me, this seems like a reasonable compromise; but one that probably seems difficult for parents to tread in the face of zero tolerance approaches or warnings by the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP).
The academics and media issue is both interesting and disturbing.
My dad pal asked me to interpret a Slate feature highlighting a Cornell research study that implies a causal relationship between TV and autism. However, I’d hold your hyperventilating for the moment. This research paper was made public by a Cornell press release, not via a news story in anticipation of the release of a peer-reviewed journal article. Obviously (and especially after reading Intuition), I am bothered by the spectacle and motive of using PR in academia, particularly prior to scientific review. The peer-review process isn't perfect, but it is unclear whether the Cornell paper has been submitted for scientific review; meaning, the paper either really could be brand new, or it could be bouncing from journal to journal, getting rejected repeatedly for odd methodology. The unfortunate reality of academics is that, just as there is a celebrity D-list or the person who barely scrapes by through medical school, there are “low impact factor” journals. And in the “publish or perish” culture of high-pressure academics, it often boils down to bean counting; sometimes researchers feel that it would be better to publish in a crummy journal than not at all.
But I digress. Clearly, I’m skeptical of the Cornell study, but while I have been recovering from my writing backlog since receiving the Slate link from my dad pal, Claudia Wallis of Time/CNN has written an excellent piece in response to the Cornell paper. I am in agreement with Wallis’s analysis, particularly regarding the bizarre nature of making claims about TV causing autism when no such independent variables (e.g., amount or frequency of TV watching) were measured empirically (instead the authors make inferences based on cable TV subscription rates and weather patterns).
So what’s the collective message? Since, for the general public, it is difficult to assess the strength of research reports when they hit the media, and since our lives already are complicated with enough guilt and worry to spend years in therapy, my opinion is to encourage as much active play and creativity for your kids as possible, and limit TV intake as well as you can (click here for guidelines on encouraging positive viewing habits); otherwise, use your instincts and do what you need to do to stay sane. While I think the AAP's suggestion of avoiding TV exposure for kids under 2 makes sense, in a given day, 20 minutes of Teletubbies for a 2+ toddler likely won’t negate the effects of all of the learning and nurturing that occurs during the remaining hours of the day.