There’s a growing backlash against parents who let their wee ones watch television. And while we more or less subscribe to the ideal-world notion of a TV-less infancy, we feel the need to keep things real. After all, we’re talking about television, not cigarettes.

So we asked pediatrician Dr. Daniel Weissbluth to give it to us straight. As a staff doctor at the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Dr. Weissbluth is currently writing a book about the role media plays in the lives of children. He’s also recently started blogging on the subject at Weissbluth Method, along with his dad, Dr. Marc Weissbluth (author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child).

Q. Let’s start with the No-TV-Before-Age-2 rule. Is a little bit of Elmo in the morning really such a bad thing?
A. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests no TV for kids under the age of 2 mainly because of developmental concerns. There is research that points to language delay and evidence that television viewing in this age range leads to over-stimulation and subsequent attention problems (think ADHD). However, both these points have been recently disputed.

Q. Any other reasons, then?
A. Here’s why I do agree with the guidelines:  The “Displacement Effect”—there are only 24 hours in a day, and time spent in front of the television is time NOT spent sleeping or interacting with the environment (especially with parents).  Sleeping, playing, and parental interactions are very important for the development and cognition of young infants. Additionally, there is no evidence to point toward any of these so-called educational DVDs actually improving cognition in the 0-2 age group.

Q. C’mon. Not even Baby Einstein?
A. The Baby Einstein website will direct you to a Harvard study refuting evidence of developmental delay. However, that same study also states that these DVDS confer no cognitive gains—the Baby Einstein website leaves that last part out.

Q. Alright, so let’s say we’re on board with this plan and we don’t let our babies watch any TV until they turn 2. Then what? Do we watch with them? Should it be the same time every day? Is there a certain time of day that TV should be off-limits? How much is too much?
A.  The recommendation is for no more than two hours per day for toddlers older than 2. Co-viewing is good for media exposure at all ages. There can be bonding and increased learning at younger ages, and parents can diffuse potentially harmful media messages at older ages. I think routines are important and appreciated by kids, but I am not convinced that a parent needs to show television programs or DVDs on a scheduled basis for the sake of consistency. The off-limit time for television should be nighttime—there is a hypnotic effect and a concern for nightmares. Also, late viewing can cause later bedtimes and consequently develop worsening sleep cycles. Mealtimes should be off limits, too, because television interferes with the social interaction that often occurs during mealtime.

Q. Okay, got it. Now what about the content: how do we determine which shows are acceptable?
A. Choose shows that are interactive—shows that elicit singing, dancing, and verbal responses. Shows that encourage reading, thinking and creative exploration are all good. Positive values like stewardship and empathy are helpful. I would start with PBS Kids shows. They are developmentally appropriate and teach good values.  There are lots of other good programs available as well, including those that have won the Parents’ Choice awards.

Q. So what’s the bottom line?
A. Television can offer a wide variety of educational benefits. But the more television an infant watches, the more he or she is likely to watch as a toddler and school aged child—and vice versa. The bottom line comes down to content: is it developmentally appropriate and what messages are being presented to the child? Parental interactions, child’s temperament, and of course the content of the media all play a role. What we are trying to encourage is healthy habits.