Viewing With Alarm

Little kids watch TV; alert the media!


When my daughter's attention span developed to the point where she would sit and watch TV or a videotape for more than a few minutes, I was delighted. It meant that she could entertain herself for reasonable stretches of time while I worked in the next room.

I'm a terrible father. Or so I gather from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation's recent study of "exposure" to electronic media among children 6 and younger. Based on a national survey of parents, Kaiser reported that "even the youngest children in America are growing up immersed in media, spending hours a day"—just under two hours on average, to be more precise—"watching TV and videos, using computers and playing video games."

Naturally, this discovery should be viewed with alarm. "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two not watch any television," the Kaiser report notes, "and that children over two be limited to one to two hours of educational screen media a day. Despite these recommendations, in a typical day, 68% of all children under two use screen media….and these youngsters will spend an average of two hours and five minutes in front of a screen."

It seems I'm not the only one who has been flouting the AAP's child rearing guidelines. Maybe that's because they don't make much sense.

According to Michael Rich, a member of the AAP's committee on public education, kids younger than 2 should not watch any TV because they need to interact with the real world for their brains to develop properly. "They should be spending time with siblings, with parents, with mud," he says. "They should not be spending time with TV."

Far be it from me to slight the educational and entertainment value of mud compared to, say, Teletubbies, but isn't it possible for toddlers to play with wet dirt even if they also watch the occasional Baby Einstein DVD? How busy are these kids' schedules that they have to choose between Blue's Clues and quality time with their families?

In case parents need more reassurance on this score, Kaiser's survey found no evidence that TV watching displaces other activities among children 3 and younger. It also found that "the portrayal of television watching among young children as a highly solitary activity is not accurate," and that parents were "more likely to see positive than negative behaviors being copied" from TV.

Press coverage of the study ignored or played down these and other upbeat findings, instead emphasizing results that could be cited as cause for concern. Among 4-to-6-year-olds, for example, those who watched TV two hours or more a day "spent an average of 30 minutes less per day playing outside and eight minutes less per day reading" than the other kids.

As the researchers concede, it's not clear what these findings mean. It could be that kids in cold climates or dangerous neighborhoods tend to stay inside, for instance, and therefore watch more TV. And kids who have trouble reading are less apt to enjoy it and may therefore be more inclined to watch TV instead.

That was not the interpretation preferred by the news media. "'Tuned-In' Toddlers Need a TV Timeout," according to the headline in The Washington Times. "For Media-Savvy Tots," The Washington Post warned, "TV and DVD Compete With ABCs." The Detroit Free Press ran an editorial scolding parents to "turn off the TV and read with your kids."

The press took its cue from Kaiser's researchers, for whom the absence of evidence that kids are harmed by "using screen media" is cause for worry rather than reassurance. "We know the first two years are a crucial development period," said Vicky Rideout, the study's lead author, "but at this point we don't have a clue about the impact of all this media." The researchers, of course, want more research, focused mainly on all the problems that electronic media consumption might cause, ranging from cognitive impairment to obesity.

The AAP's Rich not only concedes that research so far has not demonstrated a difference "between kids raised on media and those raised on more interactive play." He also says, "I don't think we'll ever have [those] data." But a lack of evidence will not stop his organization from issuing edicts that imply most people cannot be trusted to raise their own children.