Infants and Toddlers "Unplugged": New Recommendations about Media Use from the American Academy of Pediatrics

By Lauren Lowry
Hanen Certified Speech-Language Pathologist

It’s hard to find a household nowadays without a television. It’s getting hard to find a car without a DVD player. You can even watch TV and movies on a Smartphone. Electronic media is everywhere, and even the youngest children are exposed to it. Consider the following statistics (1):

  • 90% of children under two years of age watch some type of electronic media
  • children under 2 watch an average of 1-2 hours of television each day
  • one third of children have a television in their bedroom by age 3
  • 39% of parents of young children report that the television is on in their homes for at least 6 hours per day

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) looked at the research on this topic to see the impact of electronic media viewing on children under age two. In November 2011, they published “Media Use by Children Younger than 2 Years” in the Journal Pediatrics. Here’s what they found and what they recommend.

What young children are watching 

  • Shows for children - parents generally feel more comfortable allowing their children to watch shows marketed as “educational”. However, whether children are “actually learning something from these programs is questionable” (1, p. 1041-1042).
  • Shows for adults - many children are exposed to programs intended for adults when the television is left on while the children are in the room. This “has the direct effect of distracting a child [during play] and the indirect effect of taking a parent’s attention away from the child” (1, p. 1042).

Can young children learn from “educational media”?

Two recent studies found that watching shows like Sesame Street has a negative effect on language development for children under 24 months, and that two other studies did not show evidence of any benefit.
Seventy-five percent of the top selling infant videos claim to be educational (1). However, the AAP reports that there is no proof that media for children younger than 2 years is beneficial. They also state that studies suggest that media use does not help children develop language skills.

This is because:

  • children 12 months and younger cannot follow the changing scenes on a screen or a program’s dialogue
  • 12-18 month olds are not able to learn and remember information as well from a video as from a live person
  • most of the content of educational media is not appropriate for children under 2. Young children generally do not understand the content, but are instead interested in the exciting colours, quick scene changes, music/sounds, and interesting characters.

The APP reports that two recent studies found that watching shows like Sesame Street has a negative effect on language development for children under 24 months, and that two other studies did not show evidence of any benefit.

How does electronic media affect development?

The AAP outlines the following ways that electronic media affects young children’s development:

  • Less interaction with parents – “Children younger than 5 who watch television spend less time...interacting with parents or siblings” (p. 1042). The AAP points out that infants’ vocabulary growth is directly related to the amount of time parents spend speaking to them.
  • Health consequences - In children under 3 years, television viewing has been associated with irregular sleep schedules (p. 1042). Poor sleep habits can affect a child’s mood, behaviour, and concentration.
  • Less time spent reading books – Children who live in households with heavy media use spend a lot less time being read to or looking at books. These children are less likely to be able to read in comparison to peers who live in households with low media use (p. 1042).
  • Language development – Studies suggest that the more TV children watch, the more at risk they are for delayed language development. One study showed that children who started watching TV under 12 months of age and who watched TV for more than 2 hours per day were about 6 times more likely to develop a language  delay than children who started watching TV after 12 months of age and/or watched less than two hours of TV a day. Another study found that for infants 8-16 months of age, each hour per day of viewing baby DVDs and videos was associated with a significant decrease on a test of vocabulary development.  The research to date hasn’t proven that TV viewing causes the delay, only that there is a clear link between television viewing and language delay.

The AAP mentions that more research is needed to understand the effects of electronic media exposure on young children’s cognitive and emotional development. However, they also state that “there are ample reasons to be concerned” (p. 1042).

Recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics

  • Avoid media use by children under age 2.
  • If parents choose to expose their young child to electronic media, it’s recommended that they:
    • review program content before letting their child watch it
    • watch the program with their child (use it as an opportunity for conversation)
  • Don’t put a television set in a young child’s bedroom.
  • Avoid exposing a young child to adult-oriented television programs, even if the child is not actively watching it. This distracts both parent and child.
  • Encourage independent, free play – when parents cannot actively play with their child (for example, when preparing dinner). Instead of turning on the TV, they should let the child play alone, while they are nearby. Independent play allows a child to think creatively, problem-solve, and accomplish tasks. 
  • Read and play together - “unstructured playtime is more valuable for the developing brain than any electronic media exposure” (p.1043).  Playing and reading together fosters a child’s cognitive and language development. The importance of interaction between child and caregiver cannot be understated.      

Introducing Media to Children

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact age at which children can benefit from electronic media. Current research suggests that “certain high quality programs have educational benefits for children older than 2 years. Children who watch these programs have improved social skills, language skills and even school readiness.” (p.1041). It seems that children’s attention to televised programs improves somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 years of age.

That’s not to say that TV can substitute for parent-child interaction and play once a child turns two. Rather, it means that most children will be at a stage in their development when they can understand and learn from some high-quality programming. For children to get the most out of electronic media, the best approach is for parents to watch the program with the child, and to use it as an opportunity for discussion and interaction. Research continues to show that language-rich interactions between children and caregivers are what really support children’s development.


American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media (2011). Media Use by Children Younger Than 2 Years. Pediatrics,128(5), 1040-1045.

Frederick J. Zimmerman and Dimitri A. Christakis (2007) Associations Between Content Types of Early Media Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems. Pediatrics 120;986.

Weerasak Chonchaiya and Chandhita Pruksananonda (2008). Television viewing associates with delayed language development. Acta Pædiatrica, 97, pp. 977-982.

For more than 35 years, The Hanen Centre has taken a leading role in the development of programs and resources for parents and professionals to help all preschool children develop the best possible language, social and literacy skills, including those children with or at risk of language delays and those with developmental challenges such as Autism Spectrum Disorder.