Heavy TV viewing under 2 is found

Ignoring risks, parents cite 'educational' value

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / May 27, 2007

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About 40 percent of 3-month-olds watch television or videos for an average of 45 minutes a day, or more than five hours a week, according to the first-ever study of the viewing habits of children under the age of 2.

The study, by pediatric researchers at the University of Washington, also found that by age 2, 90 percent of children are watching television for an average of more than 90 minutes a day.

Such early exposure to screens can have a negative impact on an infant’s rapidly developing brain and put children at a higher risk for attention problems, diminished reading comprehension, and obesity, researchers said.

Researchers said they were surprised not only by the number of hours young children are spending in front of the television but also by the primary reason: Most parents are using television as an educational tool, not for the more conventional explanation of babysitting. Despite nearly a decade of warnings by pediatricians to the contrary, parents believe that the content of programs aimed at babies is good for brain development.

‘‘I wouldn’t be so upset about this if I thought parents were doing it because they needed a break to take a shower or make dinner,’’ said Dimitri Christakis, the University of Washington pediatrician who co-authored the study. ‘‘What I’m troubled by is the notion that parents think it’s good for their kids. That’s more likely to lead to excessive viewing rather than occasional viewing.’’

The new study, based on 1,009 random telephone interviews with families in Minnesota and Washington, was published in this month’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. (According to the study, the families interviewed were more likely to be highly educated and higher-income than the general US population.) The top two reasons parents gave for allowing babies to watch television is that the programs ‘‘teach something’’ or are ‘‘good for his/her brain’’ (29 percent), and because it’s ‘‘something he/she really enjoys doing’’ (23 percent). Needing to keep a baby occupied scored in third place (20 percent).

‘‘That’s stunning when you consider that the best evidence shows that early viewing puts children on a trajectory that places them at a high risk for attention deficit, diminished reading ability, and obesity,’’ says Frederick J. Zimmerman, a developmental psychologist who co-authored the new book, ‘‘The Elephant in the Living Room, Make Television Work For Your Kids,’’ with Christakis. ‘‘These parents want to do the right thing, but there’s a huge discrepancy between what the professional community recommends — no viewing under 2 — and what is happening in real life.’’

Kristy Merhib of Milford reflects the dichotomy. She says her 4-month-old, Jake, has been watching practically from birth even though she knows about pediatricians’ recommendations to the contrary. ‘‘That’s why I’m careful to use it in moderation, and only what’s educational,’’ she said. ‘‘I think even at this age, something is definitely getting through. Colors, numbers — he really seems to pay attention.’’

The baby video market is a billion-dollar-a-year industry, with Baby Einstein videos, programs aimed at stimulating development and activity in infants and toddlers, generating sales of more than $500 million alone last year.

Cathy Davies of Wayland, who has a 2 1/2-year-old and 1-month-old, says the guideline is the reason she waited until her oldest was 18 months before she introduced baby videos. With her second, she won’t wait that long. ‘‘I bet he’ll be watching at a year,’’ she said. ‘‘I know it’s controversial, but it’s geared to babies.’’

Another mother, Renata Wilson of Newton, put Isabella in front of ‘‘Baby Einstein’’ at 2 months. ‘‘We’re a bilingual family. I only speak Portuguese to her, so I thought it would be a good way for her to get more English,’’ she said, noting that even at a young age her daughter seemed to pay attention.

That parents put so much stock in videos such as the wildly popular ‘‘Baby Einstein’’ series has researchers and educators wondering what they can do to support parents’ good intentions but wean them away from the baby video market.

‘‘We have succeeded in convincing people that the first years are critical to brain development,’’ said Meltzoff, who is co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. ‘‘The unfortunate consequence is that it has spun off to build a brainier baby enterprise, where people think they have to use technology to take advantage of this critical window.’’

What parents identify as attention and learning scientists say is a primitive reflex known as the orienting response.

‘‘Yes, the baby is staring at the screen, but it’s wrong to think the child likes it,’’ said Christakas, the study’s co-author and himself the father of two young children. ‘‘He or she has no choice in the matter. He’s hard-wired to pay attention to anything that is fast-moving, brightly colored, or loud. It’s a survival response.’’ Christakas said he embarked on the study after being perplexed by the results of a 2003 Kaiser Foundation study that found that children under age 6 were spending up to two hours a day in front of a screen, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that children under 2 watch no television at all.

A baby is born with 100 billion brain cells, but only 17 percent of them are immediately operational. ‘‘The rest of the wiring follows in the days, weeks, months, and years to come,’’ said child psychologist David Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family. What’s not hard-wired by genetics gets soft-wired by experience and exposure. ‘‘For instance, we don’t need to teach babies to make noise; that’s hard-wired,’’ Walsh said. ‘‘But which language do they end up speaking? That’s the soft-wiring.’’

Early screen-viewing has a negative effect on soft-wiring even when the content is baby-safe, he said. ‘‘The question to ask isn’t, ‘What is she watching,’ but, ‘What else isn’t she doing?’’’ he said. ‘‘When there’s screen time at an early age, the brain is wired to respond to screens even before they crawl or say their first words. At a time when they need to be interacting with the environment and with real human beings, they are being conditioned to respond to a screen.’’

What’s more, he said, babies who are in front of a screen as early as 3 months are at higher risk for childhood obesity. ‘‘Wiring is based on repetition, on patterning. It’s a reasonable hypothesis that if a baby is in front of a screen at 3 months, it will be harder to get him away from the screen at 3, 8, 10, or 13,’’ he says. ‘‘We’re conditioning them to be couch potatoes.’’

Contact Barbara Meltz at

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a Page One story Sunday about TV viewing by children misspelled the name of Dimitri Christakis. Also, because of an editing error, the story misidentified the co author of Christakis's book, "The Elephant in the Room." The co author is Frederick J. Zimmerman.)