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Q: I read your response about baby videos and learning, and I'm wondering — rather than relying on age, is there some developmental signal that indicates a child can handle/process television and such?
-Ready, set, go? in Wellesley, MA

A: Dear Ready, set, go?,

This question gets at one of the difficulties of scientific research: Age tells us approximately what stage of development a child should be near, but children of the same age are not all at the exact same place in their development. In addition, children have very different temperaments—one four-year-old will be terrified by violence while another is fascinated by it.

The available research, however, is based on age, and there is no good evidence that kids under age two and a half learn well from screens—and that is the very earliest that any child, even the ones farthest along in their development, might be able to learn from screens. Although it’s tempting to argue that your child is smarter than other children and therefore might be able to learn from screens earlier, intelligence has nothing to do with it. A smart two-and-a-half year old is still a two-and-a-half year old.

So to answer your question more directly: No–research does not describe specific developmental signs that will tell you when your child is ready to watch TV or ready to view a certain kind of content. But there are still things you can do to make sure it's time, like thinking about why you want to introduce it and what your children will get out of the experience. For example, once kids reach age 3, research shows that some educational TV can actually help them learn pre-reading and pre-math skills. But in general, the longer children can be encouraged to entertain and educate themselves, the better off they will be. Their imaginations and problem-solving skills will grow as they interact with the physical world and the people in it.

At whatever age you do decide to introduce TV, here are my recommendations for how much to allow them to watch, how they should watch, and what they should watch.

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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