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Be conservative with sitters that go beep

When parents of young children need a break, we sometimes turn to the babysitter we've known the longest: television.

In moderation, a little TV or other media distraction would seem harmless: a Teletubbies video here, a computer game there, or a session of Leapfrog (it's teaching the alphabet, after all). But researchers are casting an increasingly critical eye on the cognitive and behavioral effects of media on young children, and more than ever are discouraging exposure.

Much of the research on children's media use focuses on media literacy. The term is defined as the ability to think critically about TV, movies, advertisements, computer and video games and other mass media -- to understand how they work, how they convey meaning, how they are created and how to use them intelligently.

That all sounds a bit advanced for my 3-year-old, and Janet Heverling, chair of the Family Life Department at the Whidbey Island campus of Skagit Valley College, agrees: Media literacy simply does not exist among young children, she says. "We're talking about the ability to view programming, critically analyze what's said, understand whether what we're seeing is real or fantasy, and contrast and compare," she notes. "Young children can't do that. They're not cognitively able."

In presentations to parents, Heverling warns that most media train young minds to expect information at an unrealistic pace, changing scenes every five to seven seconds. "No parent or teacher can go by that pace," she says.

Backing Heverling's observation is a 2004 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) study linking early television exposure at ages 1 and 3 with attention problems at age 7. (See New study looks at very young children and TV in the July 2004 ParentMap)

Are tots really vegging out in front of the TV and video games? The statistics are eye-opening. Twenty percent of 2- to 7-year-olds have television sets in their bedrooms, according to a 2002 study by the National Institute on Media and the Family. These same kids are playing an average of 43 minutes per day of video and computer games. In fall 2003, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation released a study showing that 59 percent of children 6 months to 2 years old watch television every day, and 42 percent watch a videotape or a DVD.

Evidently, these trends worry the AAP. In 1999, the organization issued a statement asking pediatricians to urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of 2. The statement reads: "Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional and cognitive skills."

Not everyone agrees. The makers of children's media, for example, defend the developmental value of their products. The producers of Baby Einstein, one popular video series for infants and toddlers, say their videos "are designed for parents to use with their babies so they can explore and discover the world together."

Besides the possible educational benefits, media entertainment can keep children entertained while their parents accomplish other, often necessary tasks, or just enjoy some respite. Kiersten Swanson, single mother of a 4-year-old and a student teacher living in Woodinville, expresses what many parents feel about media: ambivalence.

Swanson says media literacy is not her big concern: "I just worry about what my daughter is watching, so I screen for violence and other elements she's not ready to deal with."

Asked how media use benefits her daughter, Swanson says: "The only benefit she gets is a better mother, because it gives me some uninterrupted time to myself. My daughter can entertain herself pretty well in the summer, out in her sandbox, and for a long time playing in her room with her dollhouse, but if I have to get something substantial done -- like writing a paper -- I can put in a video."

Swanson is not alone. As a writer who sometimes works from home, I occasionally hook my own daughter up to a video so I can meet a deadline. At other times, I do it for my sanity. But David Walsh, Ph.D., president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, says I should reconsider this sort of "electronic babysitting."

"Unfortunately, television doesn't always match up very well with the criteria for a good babysitter," he cautions on the organization's Web site. "Use TV as a babysitter sparingly."

What else can parents do to promote positive 0-5 development in face of mass media?

Here are some ideas:
  • Cut back time spent with electronic distractions.
  • Select programming carefully, opting for slower-paced shows.
  • Teach critical viewing skills: Ask questions and uncover hidden messages.
  • Redirect kids toward creative or interactive activities like crafts, reading and playing games. Face-to-face games involving eye contact are especially helpful to development.
  • Keep kids' rooms electronic media-free.
  • Be a role model: Limit your own time spent with media.

As Janet Heverling puts it: "Young children need their experience to involve the three-dimensional world."

Now, how about a good, old-fashioned game of hide-and-seek?

Natasha Petroff is a Puget Sound-based writer and mother.

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