tv and toddlers - parents play very small role

TV and toddlers: new study shows that parents play only a tiny role in kids’ TV preferences

A new study suggests some kids watch TV more than others because their inborn preference for novelty makes them seek more varied stimulation.

Parents at ease: a new study on TV and toddlers shows that if you find your kids watching TV more than you’d like them to, it might be largely out of your hands.

The study, published in the journal Infancy, shows that the brain responses of 10-month-old babies predict whether they will enjoy watching fast-paced TV shows six months later.

Is TV bad for babies? It depends what they like

The researchers wanted to know why babies seem so different in how they seek out new visual sensory stimulation. Examples include shiny objects, bright colors, or moving images on TV.

Various theories seek to explain these differences. Some suggest infants who are less sensitive will seek less stimulation. Other theories propose that some infants are faster at processing information, which drives them to seek out new stimulation more frequently.

Lead researcher Teodora Gliga said this study lends support to a third theory. Namely, that a preference for novelty makes some infants seek more varied stimulation.

TV and toddlers: a flashing screen tempts the eye

Using a brain imaging method known as electroencephalography (EEG), the research team studied brain activity in 48 10-month old babies while they watched a looping 40-second clip from the Disney movie Fantasia.

They studied how the children’s brain waves responded to random interruptions to the movie. These interruptions came in the form of a black and white checkerboard flashing on the screen.

“As the babies watched the repeated video clip, EEG responses told us that they learned its content,” Gliga said. “We expected that, as the video became less novel and therefore engaged their attention less, they would start noticing the checkerboard.”

But some of the babies started responding to the checkerboard earlier on, while still learning about the video. That suggested that they had already had enough of the old information. Conversely, other babies remained engaged with the video even after they had extracted all its information.

Screen time for babies: an ongoing debate

Parents and caregivers also filled in a questionnaire about their baby watching TV. It included questions about whether the babies enjoyed watching fast-paced, brightly-colored TV shows. Example choices included toddler cartoons and baby learning videos. The parents also answered a follow-up questionnaire six months later.

Gliga said it was very interesting to find that brain responses at 10 months predicted whether a baby would enjoy watching fast-paced TV shows six months later.

“These findings are important for the ongoing debate on early TV exposure, since they suggest that children’s temperament may drive differences in TV exposure.”

The research team says that the findings are important for the ongoing debate around TV and toddlers, specifically about the effects of television on child development. Often overlooked, for example, are the potential positive effects of television on these young minds.

“The sensory environment surrounding babies and young children is really complex and cluttered,” said Gliga, “but the ability to pay attention to something is one of the first developmental milestones in babies.”

“Even before they can ask questions,” she said, “children vary greatly in how driven they are to explore their surroundings and engage with new sights or sounds.”

Future directions: learning more about TV and toddlers

The next part of the research will aim to understand exactly what drives these individual differences in attention to novelty. That research would include the role that early environments may play.

“Exploration and discovery are essential for children’s learning and cognitive development,” said co-author Elena Serena Piccardi. “Yet, different children may benefit from different environments for their learning.”

“As such,” Piccardi said, “this research will help us understand how individualized environments may nurture children’s learning, promote their cognitive development and, ultimately, support achievement of their full potential.”


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Study: Explaining individual differences in infant visual sensory seeking
Authors: Elena Serena Piccardi, Mark H. Johnson, and Teodora Gliga
Published in: Infancy 
Publication date: August 5, 2020
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/infa.12356
Photo: by Harrison Haines via Pexels