Even 'smart tv' harms baby brains, doctor says

January 14, 2021
Toronto Star
By Susan Pigg

It took just a few hours of watching CNN while cradling his colicky son to make Dr. Dimitri Christakis suspect parents should severely limit the time infants watch TV.

And now he hopes 25 years worth of research will finally prove it.

In one of the most extensive reviews of its kind, the Seattle pediatrician says infant-aimed DVDs such as Baby Einstein, and even award-winning kids'
shows like Sesame Street, can do more harm than good to children under the age of 2.

In fact, the sensory overload of all those colours, sounds and sights - be it Big Bird or Baby Mozart - may be at least partly to blame for the tenfold increase in cases of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the past 20 years. It now affects between 5 and 20 per cent of American children.

He even accepts some of the blame. He believes scientists such as him have helped create the trend.

"There is now an obsession with having smart kids," Christakis said in a telephone interview yesterday.

"I think we scientists have managed to convince people, rightly, that these early years are really important. But the problem is we've created a neurosis around optimizing them and that's spawned industries that essentially now prey on people's obsession and fear."

Nine out of 10 children under the age of two watch TV regularly - some spend up to 40 per cent of the daytime in front of the tube - "despite ongoing warnings" from the American Academy of Pediatrics that they shouldn't, he says in his review of 78 studies done over 25 years - including his own survey of 1,000 U.S. families - in the January issue of Acta Paediatrica, a monthly pediatrics journal. In his survey, published in 2007, he found 29 per cent of families let infants watch TV because "it's good for their brain," while 24 per cent use it as a "babysitter."

In 1971, the average age that children started watching TV was 4 years old.
Now, it's four to five months, he says. Now that there's so much scientific evidence that too much, too early, is "rewiring" infants' tiny brains he's calling for tough regulation. France, for instance, recently moved to curtail the broadcasting of shows aimed at children under 3, which has affected 24-hour channels such as Baby TV.

The sale of "baby DVDs" in the U.S. alone is now a $500 million industry.
Millions of dollars in marketing by such giants as Disney-owned Baby Einstein and Georgia-based Brainy Baby, whose officials couldn't be reached for comment, have helped persuade too many parents - with no proof - that they're doing a good thing for their children, says Christakis. Studies have shown the opposite is true, that baby programs can actually delay language development (infants learn better from "live presentations") and harm attention spans.

The "flashing lights, scene changes, quick edits and auditory cuts" may be "overstimulating to developing brains," says Christakis, who suspected this
11 years ago when he was homebound with his colicky son and looked to CNN for relief. He noticed the baby was mesmerized by the light and sound show, and wondered why, since "he obviously didn't understand what was being conveyed."

"The truth is that we're in the midst of a large, uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children. We're not going to know for years what the effects of all this exposure to TV will mean, in a scientific sense. But I'm concerned that we're not going to be pleased with the results."

This is, of course, an endless debate amongst parents, such as Toronto mother Naomi Lieberman, whose now two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Julie, tried the Baby Einstein DVDs and wasn't wowed, and Whitby mother Lesley Kelz, a graphic designer who works at home with two young children and considers TV "my friend."

"If there were deadlines, I've had to say, `Go watch TV.' I was in the same
(family) room. But there's such guilt. That drove me crazy for so long,"
Kelz says.

Lieberman and her husband, on the other hand, try to stick to books, games and puzzles and are grateful for a toddler and a four-month-old baby who don't seem to care about the big screen.

"But I know they're going to watch TV eventually. It's just a question of time."