Pediatricians recommend that tots younger than 2 not watch any television, but former Wall Street Journal reporter Lisa Guernsey found that "educational" TV was the only thing that calmed her colicky infant. Feeling guilty and confused—the shows had helped her baby; how bad could they be?—Guernsey delved into research to learn how TV may have affected her daughter. The research, however, is also in its infancy. While most kids younger than 4 watch more than an hour of TV daily, there are few in-depth studies of its effects on children, even fewer on babies, and probably none that haven't sparked controversy and sensational media coverage. In Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five, Guernsey deconstructs dozens of those studies, often with fascinating conclusions.
The good news is that nursery school-age kids may learn social skills from certain shows (thank you, Dragon Tales). But that's not a recommendation for unlimited TV; youngsters learned better when they had parents next to them to answer questions and synthesize what they'd seen. In a study of preschoolers, aggressive-superhero shows were shown to spark aggression in all the children, regardless of how calm their disposition was beforehand. Among the most intriguing findings: Leaving the TV on in the background significantly detracts from language development because infants and toddlers have a hard time filtering out sensory input and can't differentiate a live conversation from one on TV.
MOST VALUABLE TIP: Social interaction is the key to acquiring language. (Basic Books, $25).