Is there anything wrong with letting my 18-month-old watch the episode of Sesame Street that he loves?

by Boston Children's Hospital staff on November 27, 2009

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Media expert Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston, answers your questions about media use. Last week, he discussed what to do if your child imitates inappropriate dance moves.

Here’s this week’s question:

Q: I am the mother of a very active 18-month-old little boy who loves one particular episode of Sesame Street. Other than this one particular episode, he does not watch TV and for the most part, he’s uninterested even if the TV is on. My question is, although I know children under 2 should be discouraged from watching TV, is it harmful for him to watch Sesame Street? This program does not have any commercials and seems harmless. Please let me know your thoughts; any information is much appreciated.

-Uncertain about Sesame, Norristown, PA

A: Dear Uncertain,

Pediatricians recommend limiting screen media before the age of 2 because young children learn little from screens. As far as the brain is concerned, the little time that kids are awake at this time of life is better spent doing other things. But, you’re right, screen media are not inherently toxic to this age group—they’re just not ideal.

Your son probably loves that particular episode because it’s familiar to him. He has mastered its sounds, songs, and images, so it feels comforting. But don’t confuse this kind of attention with learning—your son is not at a developmental age where he is taking in the instruction on letters and numbers.

When he’s a bit older, however, watching the same episode of an age-optimal TV show over and over again will actually help him learn from it. Research shows that kids between the ages of 3 and 5 learn more each time they watch the same episode of a show like Blue’s Clues than they do from watching an episode only once. If he watches many of those shows before that age, though, he will no longer be interested in them when he’s old enough to truly benefit from them.

In short, know what you’re choosing for your son. Although an episode of Sesame Street will not damage him, spending that time playing with blocks or clay will do more toward building a flexible, resilient and creative brain.
>>See other Q&A about toddlers and media

Enjoy your media and use them wisely,
The Mediatrician

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