We all have complicated dependencies on our screens. And yet there is a cost. Research reliably demonstrates that people who don't watch TV are happier and healthier, have better self-esteem, and are less fearful. Females who don't watch TV have a healthier body image. Our constant engagement with our phones undermines our closeness to those we care about most, including our children and partners.

The impact of screen usage on children is much greater, because their brains, nervous systems, habits and values are still developing. Families who watch less TV are closer, and kids who see less TV become sexually active at a later age. Most concerning, repeated screen use can change the way the brain develops. For instance, cartoons, with their quick cuts, have been shown to reduce the attention spans and other executive functions of preschoolers.

Screen usage at early ages also undermines reading. We know that kids who love to read do better in school and reading comprehension is the best predictor of all school performance. Yet while virtually all parents say they want their children to love reading, most kids stop reading books that aren't assigned in school by middle school. Only 28 percent of eighth graders score at or above the proficiency level in reading; in fact, only two percent of them read at an advanced level. What happens?

TV and reading are linked: Research shows that the more TV kids watch before the age of eight, the less they read after the age of eight. Of course, that's a correlation, so it doesn't prove that one leads to the other, but most researchers are convinced. If you want your children to be readers, don't let them get addicted to TV and videos before they have become dedicated readers. Time spent on the one activity precludes the other. And once kids develop the habit of TV, they are less likely to seek out books of their own accord. Books -- which are more work -- just can't compete with the lure of the screen.

So no screens at all? Isn't that a little extreme?

My view is that kids should engage with screens as little as possible, so that it is a special occasion, like going to a movie, rather than a daily habit. My wish for every child is that reading should become a daily habit. Once the habit of reading is ingrained, it can compete with electronic media and it's ok to introduce screens sparingly, so kids have some clue what their friends are talking about.

But when children are little, before they can read, TV is ok?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not watch TV or videos at all, because it is bad for their brain development.

They recommend that older children watch only one to two hours per day AT MOST of nonviolent, educational TV without advertising. Given the science of both brain development and addiction, that seems like a lot to me. I recommend that 2-8 year olds watch only occasional TV, so it doesn't become a habit. 

We know that TV actually changes the way kids' brains develop, and shortens their attention spans for other activities. TV also changes our body chemistry, at least temporarily, and for some people that can be addictive. Kids have lots of developmental tasks, from playing with other kids to building block towers, and TV can keep kids from those tasks. every repeated experience changes the brain. Do you want your child's brain shaped by legos and imaginative play, which have been proven to be beneficial, or by screens, which have been proven to sabotage brain development?

This is true of all screen use but commercial TV is the worst risk factor. There is substantial research confirming that the more commercial TV children watch, the more likely they are to exhibit aggression with other children.

So public television is okay?

There's some very good programming on public TV. But even public TV sets up the passive habit of watching and starts the addiction. By the time he's eight, if not much earlier, he won't be watching only public TV anymore. 44% of children and virtually all teens report watching different programs when their parents are not around. 

Most parents have given up trying to control what their kids watch by the time they're ten. And while ten year olds should have some control over their own viewing, most parents of ten year olds agree that they want to set some limits.

Also, habitual TV, even educational TV, limits the child's own innate imagination. Preschool teachers say they always know the kids who watch a lot of TV, because those kids don't seem capable of making up original stories -- their internal world is populated by TV heroes and plots.

So if you need an occasional babysitter, is educational TV ok? Of course. But if you set up a regular relationship with it, remember that your child isn't just developing a relationship with public TV, but with TV in general.

Doesn't Sesame Street teach children to read?

I know that kids can learn their letters from Sesame Street. But kids whose parents read to them daily actually learn to read earlier than kids who have the poor substitute of Sesame Street. Kids learn vocabulary mostly from the conversations they have with us; it's an active usage learning rather than a passive learning.

So of course I will read to and talk to my child. But doesn't Sesame Street help?

Sesame Street may actually be bad for kids. There is some evidence that the quick cutting that toddlers get used to as they view it reduces their attention spans. Of course, in the general scheme of possible risk factors for young children, I wouldn't rank Sesame Street very high.

Bottom line, though, in my view, is that the downside of the addiction isn't worth it. I don't know a single child who started with Sesame Street and did not go on to "harder stuff," and that stuff -- commercial TV -- has been proven to be a risk factor, because of the violence, the sex, the destructive messages about what's an acceptable way to look, and of course the advertising. Just the habit of watching TV at all is a risk factor.

But I do know many children who never watched Sesame Street, because TV watching just wasn't something their families did. Every one of them is a precocious reader, an excellent student, and a creative person who pursues his or her own passions in life, from creative writing to athletics to art.

But how awful to constantly have to tell your kids they can't watch TV.

Actually, if it has never been part of their world at home, younger kids are unlikely to ever ask, even if they see TV at friends' houses. Most kids will ask to watch what their friends are watching when they reach age eight or so, and you may decide to let them watch at that point, because their brain development is further along and they're already established readers.

What do I do without screens to occupy my child? I can't imagine.

You wouldn't let your child do other self-destructive things just to keep him busy. So why screens? But actually kids who have never become addicted to screens are much more resourceful about keeping themselves entertained, because they are used to it. I have never seen a toddler who wasn't busy. And busy toddlers who don't watch TV grow into busy preschoolers who are engaged with the world and motivated to play independently. They're busy! They don't complain about being bored.

The kids I know who didn't grow up watching TV learned to structure their own time. They all became voracious readers, but they don't only read, of course. They are generally more physically active. They tend to be more creative, whether writing songs or building zoos for their toy animals. And they certainly don't need entertaining all the time, because they haven't gotten used to being entertained.

This may all be true, but sometimes I need to put my toddler in front of the screen while I tend to the baby. There is no other option.

Of course. You may need to do that for a couple of months, but know that you will have to be intentional about changing the habit as soon as you can do without it. Every parent uses screens to occupy their children sometimes. But occasional use is very different than a daily habit.

One option is to keep a stash of kids' movies that you feel good about. That way, the child doesn't get used to TV episodes, so he isn't begging to binge-watch. And because he sees the same movies over and over, usually he doesn't find them so appealing that he will give up building towers to watch. Of course, given the nature of addiction, toddlers can still howl for the same movie over and over.

I watched TV and it didn't hurt me.

This is not your mom's TV. Seriously, the level of violence is up dramatically. The constant commodification of sex now was unthinkable in the relatively prudish days of our childhoods. The commercial messages are developed with extensive research to be as insidious as possible. And, by the way, most parents have some issues around their bodies that come partly from all the media images we see. So unless you can say that you completely love and accept your body exactly as it is, you might not be as unaffected by TV as you think.

But I love to watch TV with my child. It gives me ideas to talk about with her.

One of the most positive things I can say about TV is that it is a bonding experience for many parents and teens or middle-schoolers, and I am not against using it that way. I would ask yourself, though, if that's an excuse. Families who don't watch TV talk more than families who do.

Ok, I just love TV. That's how I relax. I am not about to give it up.

If you love TV for yourself, fine -- watch it after the kids go to bed. You can record any show you want and watch in private. But that doesn't mean you need to get your child addicted to TV or exposed to the messages in the shows you like. I was appalled by recent research showing that half of all American adults would not give up TV for under a million dollars. The other half wouldn't give it up at all! (I guess those of us who would give it up are so few as to be statistically insignificant!) That to me is the essence of addiction: the unwillingness to give up a behavior that puts bad stuff into your body or mind, and uses up resources (time or money) you would like to use on other things that would help you to flourish. Virtually every parent says that one of the biggest problems in his or her life is lack of time, and yet most people spend much of that precious time on screens.

I guess I am not convinced that screens are so harmful if used judiciously.

There is no question that judicious use is a whole lot better than daily use. But since TV is addictive, usage increases over time. And we all lie to ourselves about how bad our addictions are.

And let's face it: even moderate TV use can't be considered GOOD for your child. We've already discussed the fact that preschoolers who watch TV are rated as less creative by their teachers. Did you know that elementary school kids who watch TV have more fears than kids who don't, and that the same is true of their parents? That middle schoolers who watch TV are much more likely to be sexual with other kids? That the more TV teens watch, the more likely they are to be sexual earlier, and the more likely they are to have body image issues and eating disorders?

What about computer games? Those seem different; my child doesn't just zone out, she is engaged and I think she is learning arithmetic!

Educational computer games engage the brain more than TV,  there are no commercials, and the parent theoretically can control which games their children use -- so all of that is a win. However, kids may start out with a Harry Potter game at age six and end up with Grand Theft Auto when they're twelve. And computer games are, if anything, even more addictive.

Certainly they aren't physically addicting, you must mean kids just love them?

Very sophisticated testing is done on games to insure that they are physically addictive. They're designed to stimulate the user's adrenalin and other neurotransmitters, including the dopamine reward system. Your body is bathed in chemicals as soon as you sit down to enjoy them, or even when you think about them. That's physical addiction. Often, people crave time in front of their computers with a physical craving akin to a craving for sweets, salt, or even drugs. So typically, kids' usage of games increases as they get older and they're in front of computers for homework.

I have heard that kids can develop carpal tunnel.

Computers are a huge public health risk for today's children, who are being subjected as guinea pigs to computer use on a huge scale. There is some evidence that they are laying the foundation of carpal tunnel type injuries, and that too much screen time impacts their eyes. But we don't know enough yet to issue comprehensive warnings and most parents are unaware of these things.

Ok, let's go back to TV. I am concerned that if I deny them TV, my kids will be pariahs in their peer group. They will have no way to relate to other kids.

I know lots of kids who don't watch TV. They find ways to relate to other kids. Hopefully, TV does not completely dominate kids lives, does it? Some of them do find it challenging within their peer group not to know much about TV, although usually those kids make up for their lack of TV knowledge with their extra creativity and their well-read minds. However, once reading is established, I am not against small quantities of TV, such as watching a specific popular weekly show just so they'll know what the other kids are talking about.

My own daughter never watched TV until she was ten, unless she was home sick from school. At that point, she began to feel left out when kids at school discussed TV, and I gave her carte blanche to watch on weekends once her homework was done, as long as the shows seemed appropriate for her age. For about a year, she taped shows during the week, and watched occasionally on weekends. After that, she lost interest and spent her free time reading and writing short stories.

So your daughter did ask to watch TV when she got to be ten?

Yes, I think kids that age start being more concerned with what their peers are discussing, and it's hard for them to be different. My son never watched TV when he was little and didn't get interested in it until he was 17, when he and I began watching old episodes of West Wing together. When we finished West Wing, we moved on to Battlestar Galactica. These are both shows that offer great opportunities for discussions about ethics, so I loved watching them with him. And of course I wasn't concerned that he would develop a TV addiction at this point. That happens before kids are ten.

Reading is great. But I don't want to raise a nerd. I want my kids to be well-rounded. Depriving kids of TV seems like such a hard line position.

I know it seems that way if you love to watch TV. But my kids say they never felt deprived, or like they were "not allowed" to watch TV, just that it wasn't something our family ever did. They were known as kids who read a lot, but they also played sports, acted in the school plays, etc, so they were hardly social outcasts. Well rounded, in my view, means developing their bodies, intellects, social skills, spirituality, and emotional intelligence. I don't think watching folks bump each other off on TV would help them be any better rounded than they are. In fact, I think it would cut into their athletic and creative pursuits.

Can you tell us about the research?

  • A 2017 study of almost 900 kids found that by their 18-month checkups, 20% of children have daily average handheld device use of 28 minutes, according to parent reports. Based on a screening tool for language delay, researchers found that the more handheld screen time a child’s parent reported, the more likely the child was to have delays in expressive speech. 
  • A 17-year-long study found that teenage boys who grew up watching more than an hour of TV each day are four times more likely to commit acts of violence than those who watched less than an hour a day.
  • 91 percent of children say they feel "upset" or "scared" by violence on television. In a random survey of grade school kids, 37% of the kids said they were frightened or upset by a TV story in the previous year. Their symptoms included bad dreams, anxious feelings, being afraid of being alone, withdrawing from friends, and missing school. 
  • A 22-year-long study found that watching lots of TV violence at age eight was linked to more aggressive behavior at ages 19 and 30 years. 
  • Former US Surgeon General David Satcher has stated that research shows clearly that "repeated exposure to violent entertainment during early childhood causes more aggressive behavior throughout a child's life."

The American Psychological Association says that children who regularly watch violence on television are more fearful and distrustful of the world, less bothered by real-world violence, and slower to intervene or call for help when they see fighting or destructive behavior. After watching violent programs, the APA reports, children are more likely to act out aggressively, and children who are regularly exposed to violent programming show a greater tendency toward hitting, arguing, leaving tasks unfinished, and impatience.

And if the violence and dulling of creativity aren't bad enough, there are the self esteem issues. Every child who watches commercial TV is bombarded with advertising messages that have been designed, sparing no cost, to convince us that we need to buy a product to feel good about ourselves and have a good life. We all know that ads are effective in getting kids to pester parents for products, what we don't see directly is what they do to self esteem.

  • Many studies have shown that girls who watch TV feel worse about their bodies and have lower self esteem in general.
  • In a study of elementary school children, Caucasian kids who watched more violent TV programs believed that African-American kids were less competent and less obedient.

There are health effects, too. Many TV ads encourage unhealthy eating habits. Two-thirds of the 20,000 TV ads an average child sees each year are for food, and most are for high-sugar foods.

While watching TV, the metabolic rate seems to go even lower than during rest. This means that a person burns fewer calories while watching TV than when just sitting quietly, doing nothing. Researchers theorize that this is because the brain is less active.

  • A long-term study found a link between television, MTV, and alcohol consumption among teens. Other research has shown that those who watch more TV are also more likely to smoke cigarettes and marijuana.
  • One survey revealed that 76% of teenagers indicated that one reason young people have sex is because TV shows and movies make it seem more normal for their age group.

Here are some additional facts from the National Institute on Media and the Family:

  • American children, ages 2-17, watch television on average almost 25 hours per week or 3+ hours a day. Almost one in five watch more than 35 hours of TV each week (Gentile & Walsh, 2002).
  • 28% of children's television shows contain four or more acts of violence (Woodward, 1999).
  • One in five E/I (educational/informational) designated children's programs was found to have little or no educational value (Woodward, 1999).
  • 99% of American families have TV sets, with the average family owning 2.75 sets (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 1999).
  • 44% of children and teens report watching different programs when their parents are not around (Strasburger & Donnerstein, 1999).
  • Twenty percent of 2- to 7-year-olds, 46% of 8- to 12-year-olds, and 56% of 13- to 17-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms (Gentile & Walsh, 2002).
  • During the 1998/1999 television season the prime time evening hours was the most popular time slot for children ages two to eleven to watch TV. (Barron's, 1999).

Recommended Resources

The University of Michigan is the source of many of the studies above. Check out the U of M website to see more, and for tips on how to have a healthy family relationship with TV.

Click here to watch Dr. Laura's video, "Keeping Children Unafraid When They Hear the News."