Can Watching TV Delay Your Child's Language Development?

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girl watching television

Should young children watch television? Photo: jupiterimages

Parents might think twice before allowing young children to watch television. Researchers in Washington state are the first to discover a possible link between TV exposure and decreased vocalization in children ages two months to 4 years old, bolstering the growing movement to ban television for toddlers and limit exposure for older children.

How much television do you allow your children to watch?
None. I don't believe in it.289 (7.9%)
No more than one hour per day.658 (18.0%)
A few hours per day.1283 (35.2%)
I don't limit TV watching.1416 (38.8%)


Scientists at the Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute sought to determine a reason for language delays by recording everything 329 children heard and said on random days every month for two years. The study found that adults speak 75 percent fewer words per hour when a TV is playing as compared to when the TV is turned off. Children vocalize an average of 25 to 50 percent less when a TV plays, with the length and frequency of vocalization diminished, as well as their "conversational" exchanges with parents.

Parents were likely distracted by the sounds and images playing on TV and spent less time interacting with their children, researchers concluded. Experts have long said that parent interaction is essential to a child's language development.

"This builds a pretty strong argument that television delays language development," lead study researcher Dimitri Christakis, M.D., who also directs the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at the hospital, said to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "And the effects of learning words is not just about language development but also cognitive development."

Prior to this study, parents have been apt to bend the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) rule of no TV for children before the age of two because experts could not offer a reason for how TV effected language development. Programs, such as Sesame Street, and videos, such as Baby Einstein, appeared to have educational benefit for infants and young toddlers.

But the hospital's study shows that any TV exposure decreases verbalization in children and therefore might ultimately effect, "the architecture of the mind," said Dr. Christakis, who is a member of the AAP and helps form the organization's television-watching recommendations. Based on these findings, he said, parents should follow AAP guidelines, which includes limiting older children to one hour a day of television-viewing.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.