Does TV Watching Delay Speech in Toddlers?

By Carly Seifert
Toddlers learn more from interacting with family than from watching television with them.
Toddlers learn more from interacting with family than from watching television with them.

If you pride yourself on your toddler's ability to sing the theme songs to all his favorite cartoons, it may be time to examine his television viewing habits. While certainly mastering the bilingual lyrics of "Dora the Explorer" is no small feat, research abounds that television viewing causes language delays in toddlers and prevents them from engaging in activities that promote healthy development.

Toddlers Learn From Interaction

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that children learn better when they are interacting than they do from any type of screen -- especially when it comes to language development. The stimulation a toddler experiences from his environment is extremely influential in how his brain grows and develops. A study published in the June 2009 issue of the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that when the television was on there was a decrease in the number of words that an adult spoke to a child, and a decrease in the number and length of vocalizations from the child. This information is concerning, since both hearing adults speak and being spoken to plays an integral role in language development. Your 2-year-old might think Mickey Mouse is his friend, but he'll learn more about communication when interacting with a real life friend or adult than he will from passively watching the cast of "Mickey Mouse's Clubhouse."

Background Noise

Even if your toddler isn't actually watching the television, but you have the evening news on in the background while you cook dinner, it can affect your tot. For a toddler who is trying to figure out how to put words and sentences together, having background noise with a variety of people who are speaking quickly and using unfamiliar words is confusing. When the television is on, chances are you are also distracted and not talking and interacting with your toddler -- which is what truly benefits her language development. Even if you are busy washing dishes or picking up the house, you will interact with your toddler more frequently if the television is off.

Language Development and Lasting Effects

A study published in the May 2010 issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine reveals that too much early childhood exposure to television can have long-term effects on a preschooler's academic performance. In the study, parents reported the data of their child's weekly television habits at 29 and 54 months of age and were followed up with in fourth grade. Eleven percent of the 29-month-olds and 23.4 percent of the 54-month-olds watched television for longer than the AAP's recommended two hours each day. Because this television exposure took place during peak developmental periods in the brain, the study determined the verbal and memory skills of the children who watched television for longer than two hours daily were affected negatively; the teachers of these students reported that they lacked productivity and autonomy and were less task-oriented than those who didn't watch as much television.

Monitoring Television Viewing

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 do not watch any television, and that screen time for children age 2 and up is limited to two hours or less each day. Instead of relying on Dora to expand your toddler's vocabulary, spend time every day reading, talking and playing with your child. Describe what you are doing as you do it: "I am going to make us lunch. First I need two slices of bread" or "Let me put on my shoes so we can go for a walk." Point out colors in nature, count objects together, and sing nursery rhymes and songs to your little one.

About the Author

Carly Seifert has been a piano instructor since 2001. She has also covered adoption and introducing children to the arts for "Montana Parent Magazine." Seifert graduated from University of California, Irvine with a Bachelor of Arts in drama.