Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

TV Time as Beneficial Downtime?

Since becoming a parent, I have heard several parents mention that they allow their children to watch TV or other entertainment as a form of “downtime” to help them recharge their energy. I have often wondered if this activity actually serves that purpose. As adults, we often use TV as a form of “downtime” to let our brains take a break or relax after a long day of work. Does this idea really work for children?

Unfortunately, there is not much research on the idea of using TV as a way to recharge a child’s energy or self-control. One thing that is clear is that children do need downtime. Children, especially young children, are prone to becoming over stimulated by their environment and need time to decompress in order to learn well and behave with some degree of self-control. For very young children, this downtime often comes in the form of a nap. As children outgrow naps, however, they still need some form of downtime. New research is showing that children who are allowed time for “day dreaming” or inward reflection end up doing better on tests and are less anxious.

The question remains, however, as to whether TV time equals downtime for kids. Since the research is limited on this specific question, I think it is helpful to consider what we do know about children and TV to help inform this question. First off, we know that extensive TV time for very young children (especially under age 2) can be problematic. This is primarily based on research showing that young children learn language better from human conversation, not television conversation. In other words, if children are watching too much TV, that begins to limit the amount of live human speech they are hearing and this can lead to slower language development.

Secondly, we know that fast-paced TV shows may be linked to lowered self-control, at least in the short-term. This is based on the infamous “SpongeBob study” in which 4-year-old children who watched a fast-paced TV show (SpongeBob) were less able to exhibit self-control compared to those who watched a slower-paced show.

Taken together, these studies suggest that while TV as downtime for babies is probably not appropriate, it might be okay for older children, assuming that the TV show is not too fast-paced. Of course, as with any aspect of parenting, you know best how your child responds to certain activities and what seems to work best for them.

I think the key point here is that children, like adults, do need downtime. TV might serve this purpose, but it could just as easily be served by sitting down and reading a well-loved book or just laying outside looking at clouds.
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