Call me old school, but I can’t seem to muster any real indignation over the fact that my just-over-2-year-old granddaughter loves “Blue’s Clues.” And “Sesame Street.” And “Baby Einstein.” In fact — and I get that I’m treading on confessional territory here — she actually asks her parents if she can watch “baby shows.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics would find that appalling.

I find it pretty cute.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand — and support — the academy’s primary point: that too many children spend too many hours in front of the tube, and that TV immersion at a very young age might have negative effects on later behavior and learning. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children younger than 2 and no more than two hours of high-quality programming for older kids.

A University of Washington study released in May found that 40 percent of 3-month-olds and 90 percent of 2-year-olds regularly watch TV, DVDs or videos. Nearly one-third of the parents surveyed feel the media exposure helps promote brain development. Yet the study — random telephone surveys of more than 1,000 families — found that only about half the infant viewing time was in the “educational” programming category.

Other parents polled said TV helped their tots relax. And 21 percent reported they use TV as an electronic baby sitter.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, co-authored the study with Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. The lead author was Frederick Zimmerman, a UW associate professor of health services.

Christakis published a widely recognized study several years ago that found the amount of TV a child is exposed to between ages 1 and 3 has a direct effect upon later attention problems. Television’s fast-paced images, he said, can overstimulate a young child’s brain during a time of rapid development.

In a recent Seattle Times column, however, Christakis says watching the right shows can actually benefit slightly older kids. “High-quality TV shows such as ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Blues Clues’ improve children’s cognitive abilities,” he says. “Study after study has shown that children 3 to 5 years old who watch ‘Sesame Street’ for an hour a day are better able than those who don’t to recognize numbers, letters and shapes.”

Use common sense, discretion

My own very nonscientific, purely observational study — based on raising two kids — taught me that when it comes to television watching, parents should rely on the Common Sense Rules. Here they are:

• There is no good reason for anyone younger than the age of 2 to sit in front of any screen.
• Make sure your kids are watching shows that are age-appropriate.
• Content counts. “Sesame Street” beats out “24” by anyone’s measure.
• Tossing television into forbidden-fruit territory will result in your children secretly downloading X-rated video streams to their iPods, if they don’t do that already.
• If your very young child does watch TV, make sure you’re watching with him.
• Everything in moderation. A little “Blue’s Clues” once in awhile is probably OK.

My children, who both went to college and have begun what appear to be reasonably productive and fulfilling careers, actually had — deep breath — TVs in their bedrooms during middle and high school.

Though I tend toward contrarianism, I didn’t permit this just because conventional wisdom and practically everyone on the planet said not to.

No, my decision was rooted in experience, specifically my own. I grew up with a television in my bedroom and because of it I learned to multitask.

I could read Plato, compute algebra equations and write essays while watching “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “That Girl.” OK, the algebra work was C-plus. But it’s my contention that if I’d holed up in the M.I.T. library with post-grad students at my beck and call, we’d still be talking C-plus.

It’s because of my TV that I could live in a college dorm full of rowdy college kids who listened to rowdy college music — and still concentrate on my studies. It’s why I could work in a wide-open, noisy newsroom, and it’s why I’m tapping this article out now in my wall-free, utterly exposed home office.

Make no mistake: My husband and I granted TV-in-the-room privileges as long as both kids maintained high standards in their schoolwork, sports, community service, music and other extra-curriculars — and participated in family dinners and events.

Which, of course, left them little time for “The Wonder Years” or “Happy Days.” And let’s remember: This was pre-TiVo, when you had to watch TV in real time and couldn’t opt for some random channel of the 468 now available.

We made sure our children worked on their computers out where we could monitor them — in the family office, at the kitchen table, anywhere but their bedrooms.

Of course, that was then and this is now. Today, when website such as MySpace can turn Internet surfing into a potential minefield, it is even more crucial that parents keep an eye on their kids’ cyberspace interactions.

Will my children allow their own kids to grow up with TVs in their bedrooms? It’s my guess that not long from now, that issue will be irrelevant. The lines between TVs, computers, cell phones, iPods and screens of all sorts are quickly blurring. The next generation might be downloading “American Idol” to their car keys. In which case my granddaughter will one day be asking, “Grammy, what’s a television?”


Originally published in the August, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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