If you’ve spent any time reading my recommendation lists you may have noticed that, even if the content would be appropriate, I don’t recommend movies or TV for kids younger than 5. Some of this has a scientific basis and some of it is opinion. Media comes in many forms so I’ll say right now that I’m not worried about books and music. I’m directing my concern at screen-based entertainment: movies, TV, video games, and apps – even if the video games and apps are interactive and “educational”. For the sake of my tired old fingers I’m going to bundle all of this screen-based entertainment under the easily typed heading, “TV”. For more on what screen-based viewing looks like check out Commonsense Media’s infographic on Children’s Media Use in America ages 0-8.
Let’s start with the scientific part at the youngest end of the age spectrum. The American Association of Pediatrics says not only does TV have no benefit for children under 2, it can actually be harmful. And the harmful effects can continue through the teenage years if kids spend too much time sitting around with whatever media, including computers and video games, and not enough time interacting with the real world. What harmful effects? According to the AAP, “attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.”
Bottom line: Zero screen time for ages 0-2. Or, in Mom-speak, 0-36 months. But wait, you say, 36 months is 3 years old! Yes, just barely, are you arguing with the American Association of Pediatrics just so your kid can watch TV?
On to ages 3 and 4.
All children develop at different rates and there’s no magical line in the sand that says, “Now screen-time is 100% OK!” so you should start slow with small chunks of time and work up from there.
Venerable educational shows like Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street can be beneficial as an educational aid for children as young as 3. And when I say “aid” I mean they should only be used as a supplement to a child’s preschool education and not a primary source. I couldn’t find any information from PBS or the Children’s Television Workshop that discussed what age Sesame Street is targeted at but Elmo is 3 so we can infer that the minimum age they’re potentially looking at is 3. PBS has assembled a FAQ on TV and kids under 3, which further reinforces this idea. Other shows targeted at a preschool demographic include Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer.
The less said about Dora’s half rhyme, the better.
I’m giving age 4 a bit of a pass. Since I’m primarily recommending entertainment content over educational content I’m targeting 5 as a good median age of a range from 4 to 6 where I feel that, in general, a child’s development has progressed to the point that they are reasonably resistant to the harmful effects of TV in moderation.
Full disclosure, we let our kids watch Blue’s Clues and Bob the Builder among other things when they were younger than 5. Having said that, I’m still sticking to my age 5 recommendation rule because I don’t feel right telling other people that it’s ok to sit their kids down in front of the TV when I don’t know them, I’m not a doctor, and in my gut it just feels wrong. This may seem like a regressive attitude in a time when children’s technological literacy is more sophisticated than ever but I’m not worried that kids won’t get the chance to learn. They’ll have more than enough time to learn how to program the proverbial VCR.