To steal a line from a '50s TV show, "What a revoltin' development this is."
A stunning study released last week shows that two-thirds of the nation's children under 6, including those as young as 6 months old, spend an average of two hours a day in front of a TV, computer, or video screen and -- get this -- a third of them have a TV in their bedroom, some with remote controls marketed specially for clumsy toddler fingers. How thoughtful.
The study, conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, is significant for several reasons. It's the first large-scale study of media use by the nation's youngest children, 6 months to 6 years old; 1,065 families were interviewed. It also confirms the worst fears of researchers and clinicians.
"My reaction was fatalistic dismay," says pediatrician Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital. "I knew this was out there. I was surprised by how widespread it is and how young it starts."
Rich had been hopeful that parents were heeding the advice of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement that he helped write two years ago. It says children under 2 should not watch TV at all, and no child, of any age, should have a TV in the bedroom.
Sadly, that message, which made front-page headlines across the country at the time, hasn't gotten through.
Aren't parents listening? Don't we care?
Of course we do. It's because we care so much that we buy into the feverish marketing that tells us it's software and educational videos that will boost our child's brainpower rather than our storytelling and a romp through a pile of leaves. Are we so busy, exhausted, and unimaginative, though, that we can't see it's better to put a toddler on the kitchen floor with two wooden spoons while we make dinner than to plunk him in front of a video? Even if it's educational in nature, researchers say that exposing young children to anything on a screen is likely to do more harm than good.
"It threatens to erode aspects of childhood that are crucial to social, emotional, and cognitive development," says Temple University psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. She is author of "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children REALLY Learn" (Rodale).
At the crux of this is how the human brain develops.
Unlike other organs, which at birth are miniature versions of what they will be in the adult human body, an infant's brain continues to evolve for another 24 months, weeding out neural connections that don't get used. If a child is hearing-impaired, for instance, the brain will prune circuits that process spoken language and reroute those cells into visual circuits, says psychologist Jane Healy of Vail, Colo., a specialist in how children learn.
Exposure to screens tends to shut down the circuits responsible for social interaction and deductive reasoning. "Those circuits are stimulated by direct, interpersonal connections with parents and the environment: eye contact, gesture, responsiveness, trial and error," says Healy. She is author of "Your Child's Growing Mind, Revised edition" (Doubleday) and "Failure to Connect, How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds" (Simon & Schuster).
As a result, these children become passive learners, dependent on external sources (the screen, for example, or someone else's ideas) for intellectual stimulation. "They won't know how to problem-solve or think outside the box. They will not be leaders of the 21st century," says Hirsh-Pasek.
What Hirsh-Pasek hears from parents is that educational programming can't be bad; their children are learning their ABCs from it. She won't dispute that that is possible, but it's not optimal.
"A toddler who learns from the screen is learning by rote," she says. The learning isn't deep or meaningful. You hide an object from a baby under a towel and it disappears. You remove the towel and it reappears. That action could happen on a screen. But the delight on Mama's face? The excitement in her voice? The love that shows in her eyes? That positive reinforcement can happen only in person.
Even when the content of a program is educational and age appropriate, Hirsh-Pasek still won't sign onto it for children under 3. "I can't say that watching one `Einstein' video has an ill effect on a child," she says. "But it's a trade-off. It's robbing precious time better spent on something else."
The something else often eludes parents. Hirsh-Pasek says that even on days when she was worn out, she would gather her 2- or 3-year-old on her bed for a game of "Where am I?" "I close my eyes and I'm thinking of a place with. . ." If her children were too full of energy to lie down with her, she'd wear them out first: "You have to run, run, run around the house for five minutes! You can't stop!"
Here are some other potential problems stemming from TV viewing at a young age:
The need to be entertained grows rather than shrinks. Early-childhood educator Diane Levin of Wheelock College says that the more children watch and the younger they are, the less opportunity they have to figure out how to entertain themselves, and the more dependent they are on the screen. She's been hearing for several years from preschool teachers who say many children don't know how to engage in pretend play anymore. Levin is author of "Remote Control Childhood? Combatting the Hazards of Media Culture" (NAEYC Press). Chat with Barbara Meltz at noon next Wednesday at www.boston.com. Shortened attention span. Even if a toddler is playing by himself in front of the TV and even if the program is age-appropriate, her attention will be grabbed by the sounds and images on the screen. Bouncing back and forth from play to screen not only creates an appetite for constant stimulation but also diminishes the ability to stay focused on any one thing, says Rich. By first grade, this can translate to difficulty staying on task as well as to a lower threshold for frustration.
Increased irritability and aggression. According to the Kaiser study, two-thirds of children under 6 are growing up in homes where TV is on half the time or more, even if no one is watching. Rich equates this with second-hand smoke and says there's clinical evidence the exposure has a cumulative effect. "You might not see it for a while," maybe years, he says, but as they get older, children with second-hand exposure are more jittery and nervous, more irritable and more aggressive. The younger they are when it starts, the greater the accumulation.
When parents are the ones who spend lots of time in front of the TV, it becomes a de facto endorsement not only of TV-watching behavior ("This is what I need to do to be like Mom and Dad."), but also of the images and messages they watch ("Mom watches this, so it must be OK. This is what the world is about."). If programming contains violent imagery, it can lead to disturbed sleep.
Which brings Rich and others back to the APA recommendation two years ago. "Children under 2 should not be exposed to a screen at all," he reiterates. "Older than 2, no more than two hours a day," not at mealtime, and only after outdoor playtime, time for coloring, and time for reading.
To any parent who sees screen time as benign, Healy says, "If you want to fool around with your child this way, that's up to you. I surely wouldn't recommend it." On the other hand, she says with a touch of irony, "I probably should be thankful to these parents. They are giving us their kids as the guinea pigs of the future."
Barbara Meltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.