How the Television Temporarily Stole My Kid, and How I Got Her Back

Who else is guilty of using the TV as a babysitter? I’ll admit, over the last year, the TV has been on a lot, and my two year old is an iPhone pro. We’ve used to to pacify her in a restaurant when she became too cranky, in the car when she wanted to get out, and pretty much any other time of the day when she would ask for it.

I’m being completely honest when I say the last 5 months had been hell. Her temper tantrums were rampant. Nothing interested her other than snacks and TV. Sophia the First & Octonauts became her BFF’s. I felt insecure when I saw my other friends’ kids doing things, like, coloring, playing with dolls, and building legos. Even though she is outdoors for a minimum of 3 hours a day, I would try every day to get her interested in something fun like an art or science project, and it was usually met with 60 seconds of interest, followed by 30 minutes of defiance, crying, and purposeful naughty behavior. I convinced myself that my child was just going through her terrible 2 phase & that this would pass. She wouldn’t always act like this, and she would eventually get to the point where she wanted to do something imaginative indoors.

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In the beginning of December, after increasingly concerning behavior regarding her attention span, I sought out advice from some other mom friends & asked questions like, “Is your toddler interested in toys? Do they play and entertain themselves? Are they interested in crafts & other fun sensory things?” Some of their answers were yes, some were no. I was ashamed to admit that my 2 1/2 year old had absolutely no interest in doing most of these.

After a horrible 2 weeks of some of the worst temper tantrums and crying fits our household had ever seen, a lightbulb went off. We had attempted several fun holiday outings that most children would be delighted to get to do. We went to see Christmas lights, made s’mores, and hung Christmas decorations. All of these things should be super fun for a toddler. Not for her. She put on a spectacular show of defiance & made sure nobody had any fun at any point. It was there in the car, listening to her crying & screaming in the backseat over christmas music on the radio that my husband and I began to talk about this behavior she’d been displaying over the past few months. We went over her diet and routine a bit before realizing a correlation between the behavior and days she watched the most TV, or when she’d watch TV first thing in the morning. It quickly became apparent that the television had taken our sweet, intelligent, fun little girl hostage & was holding her there in Disney Jr. land until we demanded her back.

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At that point, my husband and I decided we were ditching the TV and phones, effective immediately. I started doing some research on toddlers & what science is saying about the impact of TV on their little brains. In short, toddlers are supposed to be highly sensory, imaginative, curious, and job oriented. Think of their brain as a spark plug. The second they spark it with something imaginative such as building lego’s, the brain ignites & the imagination quickly leads to other things. This is why a healthy toddler can go into a room full of toys, start playing with something, and then pick up another toy and incorporate it into their play. The imagination is like wildfire for them.

The television stunts this process. When a toddler stares at a TV screen for too long, all of these wonderful sparks of imagination come to a complete halt. It causes them to be irritable, confused, angry, unsatisfiable, sleepless, etc. I witnessed literally all of these in my own offspring. When she was at the height of her TV watching, it was only for collectively 1 1/2-2 hours a day. This was enough to send her into an induced state of attention deficit. She never wanted to entertain herself, play with her toys, or do any fun crafts with me…and may I note that this is a kid who goes to the park or some other outdoor activity for 3 hours a day, nearly every day. It doesn’t matter how much outdoor time your kid gets, the TV cancels it out.

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I hear parents say things like, “The tv is so educational these days, it’s good for them.” This is a lie, people. The TV shuts off every avenue of true cognitive learning for a toddler. You have more of an ability to teach your kid something in 60 seconds than the TV has in an hour.

When the TV was no longer used as a source of entertainment for her, in two days time, after many tantrums, I saw a miraculous change. For the first time in her entire 2 1/2 years of existence, my sweet little angel woke up, went straight into her playroom, and started playing with her toys without asking to watch TV, not even once. I saw her pick up a doll & put it in the dollhouse and play with it. She then went over to her play kitchen & started cooking breakfast for me. She started talking more. She started spending over 30 minutes at a time with her toys. Instead of becoming disinterested in an art project after 2 minutes, she now sits for 15 minutes. She asks for her coloring book & colors. She draws me pictures. These are all simple things toddlers should be doing that mine wasn’t doing before. She is now.

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I’m not ashamed of this process. Being a parent means learning through trial and error. I knew the TV wasn’t great for her, but I didn’t realize how much pain and suffering I was causing MYSELF by letting her watch so much. As parents, we think the TV makes our lives easier, and sometimes it does…for a minute. But, the after-effects from it can be catastrophic & cause a major strain in the parent-child relationship. I saw this first hand.

You can undo the temporary attention deficit behavior by simply turning off the TV. I recommend shutting it off cold turkey for one week before even letting them watch at all, later, when they aren’t dependent on it anymore.

Watching TV now is a treat for my daughter, and she is completely aware of it. It is only used when she is sick, and on some nights when it’s late and we have 30 minutes before bed, she asks for “one episode”…because she knows she’s only allowed to watch for a short period of time at the end of the day when she’s played hard. I have seen a significant decrease in temper tantrums. I now have a toddler who has the appropriate attention span for her age. She still does all of the little toddler things that are completely annoying yet totally acceptable for her age, but I no longer see that rearing dragon that is only summoned by excessive TV watching.

I understand that sometimes you need the TV on for 30 minutes while you get that important thing done. The goal is to be able to have your toddler play and entertain himself while you do that, without the TV being on. We are nearly there, and it feels good.

Here are some interesting facts from articles written about this very subject:

  • “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Baby” series, researchers find that these products may be doing more harm than good. And they may actually delay language development in toddlers.
  • Every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants learned six to eight fewer new vocabulary words than babies who never watched the videos.
  • Babies learn faster and better from a native speaker of a language when they are interacting with that speaker instead of watching the same speaker talk on a video screen. “Even watching a live person speak to you via television is not the same thing as having that person in front of you,” says Christakis.
  • The more television children watch, the shorter their attention spans later in life. “Their minds come to expect a high level of stimulation, and view that as normal,” says Christakis, “and by comparison, reality is boring.”
  •  “The evidence is suggesting that there’s a whole syndrome of different outcomes related to television viewing, ranging from attention and learning problems to problems related to obesity, aggression, and sleep problems,” he says.
  • Youths who watched three or more hours of television a day were twice as likely to develop attention difficulties than those who watched less than one hour.
  •  “For every hour of television toddlers watch a day, they are ten percent more likely to develop attention problems at school,”
  • Some activities, such as reading together, going to museums, and singing help support a child’s brain development in these critical years, watching television can have the opposite effect.

And here, the most impactful of all the words on this page, the reason why TV causes ADD and ADHD like behavior is because:

“The reason? Most television programming, even some of the educational variety, features quick edits, flashing images and rapid sequences, as opposed to the slower pace of “real life.” “Our attention is broken up because we biologically have a tendency to shift our attention to changing stimuli, so television tends to take advantage of that,” says Johnson. In other words, the rapid pace plays off our instincts to track fast movements, and serves to “hook us” into the program. “But if viewers get dependent on these rapid changes,”says Johnson, “when they turn their attention to something else, like reading a book, their brain might have difficulty staying focused.” Christakis observed a similar tendency in his study of young children. After prolonged exposure to television, which conditions the mind to expect rapid-fire stimulation, he says that “in contrast, reality is boring.”,8599,1650352,00.html

What do you make of all of this? Please share your insights and experiences in the comments!


Lisa O



26 comments on “How the Television Temporarily Stole My Kid, and How I Got Her Back

  1. Judy

    Thank you for sharing this. I am a grandmother of two girls who are in my care a lot and we do not watch TV but play, do arts and crafts, go to the park and they are very easy going. I guess this is why. Parents need to read this!

  2. Mary-ann

    Thanks for sharing your experience, I noticed the same thing with our Granddaughter, tv is an easy crutch to use in order to get things done. Sometimes you even believe that if your child isnt watching the same shows as other children she or he will feel left out, but i learned that playing by themselves or interacting with others benefited them more. They learn so much, their speech and motor skills are better, and they are healthier. My Granddaughter would pick at food but thru play she has tons of tea parties and eats, and loves to bake and help in the kitchen. I think we have to change our habits so our children and grandchildren see from example, i am so guilty of putting the tv on as soon as i get up albeit its the news its still tv..

  3. Les

    Thank you for this blog! I immediately turned off the TV, as I have been guilty of the same thing. I also noticed a change in behavior from iPhone use!

  4. Summer

    It’s completely true on how much TV can rob children. If my boys watched TV in the morning the whole day, (no matter what we do as a family or how much outside time we had after that), was already ruined any imagination or attention the kids had for the entire day. They would be like addicts begging for more TV and asking if they could do this or that on the games. My boys, 7 & 5, are totally into XBOX and TV time and such and we had huge problems with attention span and constantly wanting it. We decided to cut out TV during school days altogether when they started, Monday through Friday, and it has improved our family a lot. They still ask for it, because they’re kids, but very accepting when we decline instead of tantrums or attitude like they had when we first implemented a system.

    Once boundaries were in place and they were weaned from it’s grip, TV has been a really nice treat and a fun family activity, rather than a guilty trap.


    my biggest pet peeved is when the parents or parent let the child watch tv or a movie to fall asleep by ! they don’t need a tv in they’re room ! what ever happen to reading a bedtime story ?

  6. I have a question… grandson does watch some tv but,I find that he plays and just glances at it from time to time….did this or would she literally sit down and just watch? My grandson just turned 2.

  7. Heather

    This is such a well-written piece and way to put yourself out there, admit what needed to be changed and then doing it. Anyone who judges or comments negatively is a projecting asshat!

  8. We are sharing this far and wide with our fan-base and parents. We promote movement and engagement in hands on tasks and motor activities to develop healthy kids but the screens of the world are against us! This honest post isn’t anything a parent should be shameful about because the TV helps parents get things done and let’s be honest, we need more time! But you make the points that are important when evaluating and balancing what our kids are exposed to. Sharing because we agree: this can help other parents!

  9. I’m guilty as charged. I’ve really been trying to change my ways and engage my almost 2 year old, because she throws some EPIC tantrums. And I noticed she doesn’t sleep through the night like she should. Definitely cutting our tv time down.

  10. Steph

    Thank you Lisa. This was very interesting to read, especially all the research and the effects of TV on a child’s brain and development that I had no idea about. I have to say that I never let my child watch TV until he was seven years old. This was mostly due to the reason that I personally don’t watch TV at all, so it never even occured to me to use that as a parenting tool. I have always been a book person, so I started reading books to my son from year one and gave him a downtime with some books whenever he became fussy. The first time my son saw a movie he didn’t even last 15 minutes before he walked out and started to play. It’s true that children need lots of playtime and use their imagination whenever possible. It prepares them for school where they have to sit still and pay attention for longer time periods They need to learn how to concentrate, work quietly and be able to figure things out on their own, which they automatically practice when they play. I see the positive effects of having had lots of playtime with my son (indoors and outdoors) now that he is in school. He never gets sick, he never loses interest in all the different subjects and is able to follow the lessons and can tell me details about what he has learned. He doesn’t mentally shut down from feeling too stressed or from being too tired. He has good grades and that makes him proud. The benefits from engaging your children in lots of activities and fun plays are great!!

    You both are amazing parents and Pearl is a very lucky girl to have such a caring mom. I love your blog. Keep up the good work and thank you for being so open and honest with your readers!

  11. Excellent and insightful blog! I love your honesty and as the mom of 3 appreciate your points of view. This post is definitely a keeper. Sincerely, Reflections Beneath The Poetz Tree (Parenting Observations, Personal Insights, and Inspirations) You are an inspiration! Please consider adding a “button” so your readers and fellow mommy bloggers can add you to their sites and share! I would so recommend you as often as possible!

  12. I just have to say we agree with you. We do have a TV but, it is off ALL the time Monday- Friday. We watch a movie Friday night and Sat night with something special like homemade pizza, rootbeer floats or what ever the kids want……like a little treat. We have been living without TV for 12 years. And you know what??? We don’t miss it. There are better things to do than sit in front of the TV. Our kids are never bored…They are always finding good things to do.
    You have a good blog. Keep it up.

  13. This was fantastic, and incredibly helpful! We were completely screen-free for the first year, but once we started watching TV, it just snowballed. I’ve been feeling like we need to go cold-turkey, but I’ve been putting it off by telling myself it’s not that bad (but clearly it is). Time to unplug!

  14. Mimi

    I just love your blog! We are guilty of using videos to “babysit” the kiddos when needed. But I’ve definitely noticed that the time spent on electronics is correlated with tantrums and negative mood so we try to limit the time as much as possible, though still working on it!

  15. I had to come and tell you thank you for posting this. I have a daughter who will be 2.5 soon and we were falling into this same trap. I quit my job when she was born to stay home with her and I think she and I are both figuring out how to occupy our time most days. I was a firm believer that I would have restrictions about television/screen time. Then, winter comes or they get sick or cranky and it becomes the worst habit. She began having extreme tantrums and serious behavior problems when I came upon your post. I knew it was something I’d been wanting to do in the back of my mind. Seeing someone admit what I needed to admit myself was a saving grace for both of us. It made me rethink a lot of my parenting that had gone by the wayside. It WAS controlling her. In two weeks, we went cold turkey and she has been an angel. I am having a hard time forgiving myself for letting it disrupt her for the time that it did, but glad I realized it and knew it had to change. So, thank you for admitting your failures. It helped me so much in coming to terms with mine. XO!

  16. Cassandra Malcoff

    Extremely informative, my sweet 2 1/2 was turning into that very same monster, I too blamed it on the terrible 2’s but realized after reading this how truly awful the television is.

  17. Tina

    I am having this problem with my 7 year old. It’s a lot harder to take the electronics from him because he is older. But I guess I have to follow through. Thank you for sharing!!!

  18. I can say that this is totally true for my children as well. They loose all imagination and ability to create when they’ve been in front of the TV for too long. We very much limit their TV time and have told them “TV rots your brain” (which they’ve admittedly repeated more than once)! I agree it can be a helpful “tool” once and awhile but today we’ve just become too dependent on it and we as parents can put our feet down and stop the vicious cycle. So proud of you for doing so with your daughter! :)

  19. rebecca

    This is such an intelligent piece that you have written.
    We don’t have a tv for my kids, and it is the best thing. No arguments about TV!
    However, we do have computers, and the kids watch sports and other stuff on the internet when they are home sick. Other than that, they don’t express interest in watching videos except to see a highlight of a big sport event; they ask to see sports highlights about once a month. I think they don’t really care to watch videos and such because it’s just when they’re sick and when they feel good, they don’t want to be in bed watching a video.

  20. Claire

    Hi Lisa – look up Dimitri Christakis on youtube – he did a TEDx talk on Children and Media and discussed his research on kids an TV, it’s pretty fascinating! Covers why modern TV is worse for kids than some of what we saw as kids back in the day, and how parents reading to kids is beneficial, etc. We didn’t have a TV that our kids had access to for a long time; now we do – but we are extremely selective about what they watch, and how much!

  21. Christy Nelson

    So well written. I like the way you write from your perspective and how you write without making parents feel badly. I see this in our third kid as I was and am still aching for an hour to myself at times. I would try to force the tv on him and he is the slowest of our 4 children verbally. I recently changed my need for a tv break and in just the last two weeks even see a huge change in how he listens and plays. I’m not saying its all tv as I’m sure its also the surrounding atmosphere of quiet and calmness etc. But man oh man what a difference it made.

  22. Lauren B

    I needed this so much today. As the mother of an almost 4 year old, I have been a big advocate for little to no screen time. She had zero before age 2. Now, I am 8 months pregnant and on doctor prescribed “limited activity.” I have been using the TV to give myself “breaks” but have noticed out of the ordinary crying tantrums. You have re-motivated me to keep it to special occasions. In fact, we just made your crayons today! Thank you!!

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