Toddlers who watch lots of TV do worse at school – and even sets left on in the background can be harmful, a leading expert has warned.
Lynne Murray, a professor of developmental psychology, said that two large-scale reviews from the US made it ‘absolutely clear’ that watching television has no benefits for under-twos.
And if you look at the research in detail, children who spend a lot of time in front of the screen have poorer vocabulary and do worse academically – even when other factors such as socio-economic class and parenting are taken into account.
In her new book, the Psychology of Babies, Professor Murray said that the respected American Academy of Pediatrics advises against under-twos watching TV at all.
Not only are loud, fast-moving programmes difficult for the young mind to follow, they can disrupt play and prevent children interacting with siblings and parents.
Even a television set left on in the background can be damaging.
Speaking at her book launch, the professor said: ‘If you look at the effect of television just being on in the background and children playing on the floor their focus of attention is likely to be less good.’
‘However, there are mitigating things. If you sit down and watch the television alongside your child, if you talk them through what’s happening, that definitely mitigates any negative consequences.’
Watching the same programme over and over is also helpful, as it gives developing brains time to process the information and anticipate what is going to happen next.
However, a lot of children’s TV is badly made.
Professor Murray, of Reading University, said: ‘A lot of children’s television is so poorly designed it could do better.
‘Loud and flashing and fast things and we know from studies that children’s attention is not able to grasp things happening that quickly.’
Despite her concerns, she is not in favour of an outright ban.
She said: ‘If you have got a depressed mother who is at her wits’ end and she needs a break for half an hour to have a cup of tea, I definitely wouldn’t be the one to say “Don’t put the television on”.’
The professor also gives advice on how best to get babies into a sleep routine, says that reading to a child is one of best ways of boosting its brainpower and that the first two years of life provide the foundations of everything from sociability to IQ.