Toddlers Tuning In

October 2nd, 2009

At home, at school, at church, and even in the car, kids are tuning in to visual entertainment— their eyes and ears glued to DVDs or videos, TV shows, and video games. And in recent years, they’ve been tuning in much more frequently and at much younger ages.

Two-thirds of American children under age two spend more than two hours a day in front of a screen, according to one 2003 study. We wish we could tell you how much visual entertainment kids took in before 2003, but the folks at the Kaiser Family Foundation didn’t ask.

“During the past five years there has been an explosion in electronic media for babies and toddlers,” wrote New York Times reporter Tamar Lewin. “Many babies are immersed in electronic media every day.” The Kaiser study also found that 10% of kids between six months and two years of age have television remotes designed for children. And 32% watch videos and DVDs in the Baby Einstein series.

Like many other developments in pop culture, the emergence of tuned-in toddlers is a fairly recent phenomenon that has social scientists struggling to describe it or understand what it means.

The “Mozart Effect”

The first toddler-focused TV show was Teletubbies, the British import that first aired on American TV in 1999. Before that, anxious parents bought millions of the Baby Einstein programs that promised to make babies smart.

The popularity of the videos was based on the untested belief that exposing infants to classical music, poetry, foreign languages, and other cultural artifacts would grow their baby brains and help their later development as teens and adults. Such ideas became popular during the early 1990s when promoters of the so-called “Mozart effect” argued that exposure to classical music made kids—and even adults—smarter.

“You want to make sure that you do all you can for your child,” said one mom who bought Baby Einstein products for her children after all the other mothers she knew bought the videos. “You know everyone else uses them, so you feel guilty if you don’t.”

But the real dawn of infant entertainment was 1969, the year that Sesame Street debuted on PBS. Sesame Street is one of the longest running, most celebrated, and most award-winning shows in television history. And at its heart is the unproven belief that TV can teach kids how to learn their numbers and alphabets, as well as values like sharing, inclusiveness, and tolerance.


In 1979, the performance-art rock band The Tubes turned their cynical gaze upon shows like Sesame Street and our entire TV-shaped culture with their concept album Remote Control. The album features songs like “TV is King,” which features this rousing chorus:

I really love my…television 
I love to sit by…television
Can’t live without my…television
I can’t turn off my…television

Those who never heard the album can get a good idea of what the band was singing about by taking a look at the album’s shocking cover image, which shows a toddler encased in a combination baby chair/TV viewing seat.

The jury is still out on whether TV can teach such lessons, says Steven D. Stark, author of Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today (Free Press, 1997). Stark said that 35 years after Sesame Street burst on the scene, culture observers are still divided over “whether a TV show can really teach children how to learn, or merely how to watch more television.”

Digital Babysitters

Growing numbers of vans and SUVs offer back-seat TV screens, giving harried parents the chance to let media figures temporarily babysit their kids. (Now under development is a system that would let consumers wirelessly transfer digital video content directly to their rear-seat entertainment systems.)

In many cases, such parents aren’t focusing on their children’s learning. They’re just trying to keep them entertained—and quiet.

But regardless of whether the motive is entertainment or education, some experts caution against letting toddlers watch too much TV. In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying children under the age of two shouldn’t watch TV at all, and even older children shouldn’t have TVs in their rooms.

The Academy argued that children need contact with parents and time away from pre-packaged programming to allow their imaginations to grow. It’s also nice for children to get away from the TV screen and out of the house for a while so that they may engage in a millennia-old activity called physical recreation. Remember that concept?

Effect on Kids

That advice has been largely ignored. One result of children’s increasing attachment to video entertainment is sedentary lifestyles, and the healthy issues and possible obesity that can entail.

And as for the emotional and spiritual implications of more toddlers tuning in, social scientists aren’t sure what to make of it all. There are no clear-cut tests designed to measure the impact of electronic media in a child’s development.

There have been tests of the impact of noise on the development of infants. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco did a test on baby mice in which they subjected their young subjects to continual background noise meant to simulate the noise of modern life. The auditory segments of the mice’s brains developed more slowly than the brains of mice that grew up in quieter environments.

But there are no tests to probe whether kids who spend their toddler years consuming vast amounts of entertainment will grow up to be imagination-deprived. Some researchers have made such claims, but others argue that kids who grow up surrounded by media entertainment will be better able to cope and survive in a media-saturated society as adults.

Media in Ministry

So what does all this mean for you? There may be times when some youth workers have wished they were dealing with mice instead of kids, but that’s something you should explore with your pastor, not a subject explored in this journal.

Since video entertainment is now so pervasive, even in youth ministry circles, perhaps youth workers should begin by determining what their motives and goals are for using entertainment with their kids. Just like parents who put their kids in front of a TV because it serves as an effective electronic babysitter, youth workers need to ask themselves if they’re using video entertainment to achieve a specific spiritual or education goal or if instead they’re merely filling up time and keeping kids entertained.

You might also think about whether you really believe TV is a better teacher than you. Sure, there are thousands of movie DVDs and teaching videos available for your use, but will Veggie Tales or Mel Gibson really do a better job of teaching your kids than you? How do you know whether your kids are getting valuable spiritual lessons from the media you show them rather than merely being entertained by the vibrant images and lively dialogue?

Video entertainment makes for great entertainment, but when it comes to instilling spiritual truth in your kids’ minds and hearts, the best teacher may be your own words, combined with the undeniable testimony of these words expressed in your daily life.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.