US Parents Fail to Control Toddlers' TV Viewing, Study Finds

26 May 2006

A report released Wednesday by California-based Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that one-third of the nation's youngest children - babies through age six - live in homes where the television is on almost all the time.

The study - The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers, and Their Parents - highlights the chasm between what pediatricians advise and what parents permit.

It found that 33% of children six and under have a TV set in their room, while nearly one child in five aged under two has a set - even though the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against any TV watching at that age.

Eight in ten children younger than six watch TV, play videogames or use a computer on a typical day. They average about two hours of screen time, compared with 48 minutes when being read to.

Admits lead researcher Victoria Rideout: "I had this sense of kids clamoring to use media and parents trying to keep their finger in the dam. I found that not to be a very accurate picture in most cases."

The reality is that a generation of parents raised on TV is largely encouraging the early use of television, videogames and computers by their own children, often starting in infancy.

Rideout continues: "These parents say TV teaches how to share and the ABCs when they don't have the time. [It] provides time for parents to cook or take a shower. They use screen time as a reward or, paradoxically, to help kids wind down at bedtime. There's this enthusiasm and tremendous lack of concern [about media use]."

The report admits, however, that the number of youngsters glued to the screen has changed very little since the foundation first reported on the topic in 2003.

But in the latest followup, Kaiser asked parents (in focus-group sessions as well as the survey) why they and their children use TV and other electronic media in the way they do.

"It's just background noise," said one Colorado mother who has a preschooler and who keeps the TV on most of the day.

There are (inevitably) mixed views as to whether this is a good or bad state of affairs. "People have made dinner for millenia, but we've only had television for fifty years," comments Dimitri Christakas of the University of Washington.

"Television's not inherently good or bad. … The real goal now has to be not to de-technologize childhood, but how to optimize children's [technological] experiences."

But the AAP recommends no TV or other electronic media for kids younger than two (advice followed by only 26% of parents) and no more than two hours daily of total 'screen time' for older children.

The AAP is not anti-TV, assures Daniel Broughton of the Mayo Clinic, an academy member who co-wrote the recommendations. "But before age two is the time of the brain's most rapid development, and interaction - the live give-and-take that TV cannot provide -- is crucial during that period."

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff