Toddlers and TV: Zombies, Distracted, or Engaged?

“My kids constantly move from one activity to the next – except when it comes to toddlers and TV. Should I be worried when my 5 year old just sits and stares at the screen?”

When TV was still a fairly new pastime for kids, researchers coined the term “zombie effect” to describe the glassy-eyed, TV-induced trance familiar to parents everywhere.

The term zombie may seem overly-dramatic today, but toddlers and tv are a mesmerizing combination. Parents of infants often exclaim “She loves TV!” because their babies are so drawn to the screen. This might be part of the reason that 28% of babies in this country have screens in their bedrooms.

It is clear that screens are magnetic. But when it comes to toddlers and TV, are they really turning into zombies? Are kids zoned out or dialed in when they sit in front of the screen? And, most importantly, what do we do with the answer?

Toddlers and TV

Toddlers and TV, are they hardwired to watch?

Researchers have been hard at work answering these questions for a few decades. Initially, many thought that reactive attention and the orientation response (our reaction when we are startled and our attention is dialed in to focus on new sights and sounds) made it plausible that little kids get glued to screens because of the novel sights, sounds, and movements.

In other words, kids brains are hardwired to pay attention to quick scene cuts, bright colors, music, and fast-paced action. This helps explain infants’ orientation to screens and the impact of background TV on children’s play.

Play, interrupted.

Researchers at University of Massachusetts have analyzed the impact of background television on children’s focused play. They found that there was a distinct decrease in the length of focused play periods when TV was on in the same room. Background TV (in this case, episodes of Jeapordy!) consistently pulled children’s focus away from the task at hand.

Nearly 40% of families with young children report that TV is on most or all of the time even if no one is watching it. Yet it is easy to be oblivious to its effects. Children cast their eyes towards the screen for only a second or two every minute. Yet these constant interruptions may impact children’s language and cognitive development and undermine concentration.

The message is clear: when we want our kids to focus on play, turn off the TV.

Hardwired for story.

Yet while the Massachusetts research team found that TV images and sounds distracted children, they did not find that that toddlers would abandon their blocks for any prolonged period for a program like Jeapordy. So how do we explain the so-called zombie effect where children will watch for longer stretches?

As Lisa Guernsey discusses in her book Screen Time, it is clear that colors and sounds do make a difference. Kids don’t like long periods of inactivity on screen. That said, she argues that children pay sustained attention to television when they are engaged by it.

Children pay much closer attention to story lines that they understand. Randomly edited and chopped up programs may grab their attention at first, but the disjointed content generally sends kids running back to their blocks. Narratives, on the other hand, draw kids in. Even young children will pay attention to stories.

This means we need to pay attention too.

Kids brains are cognitively engaged when they understand what they are watching on TV. They are busily trying to figure out the storyline, the characters, what might happen next, and how it relates to their experience.

But just because our kids aren’t zombies in front of the screen doesn’t give us license to thoughtlessly plop our kids down in front of the screen. It actually begs us to be even more involved. When our kids cue in to television, they are paying attention, learning stories, and interpreting meaning.

The important question becomes, “What are they learning?”

Here are six ways to get the most out of your tot’s TV time.