WASHINGTON The Kaiser Family Foundation's latest report attempts to quantify the notion that parents are using electronic media as babysitters for young children.
According to "The Media Family" study, released today, 80 percent of children under age 6 watch an average of two hours of TV per day. In addition, more than 60 percent of babies 1 year old and younger are also watching at least some of the time, fueling concern among advocacy groups about their exposure to TV and commercials at an early age.
The debate has gained momentum since Sesame Workshop released a series of DVDs aimed at kids younger than 2 years old and the launch of two 24-hour networks—PBS Kids Sprout and BabyFirst TV—which cater to the preschool audience. (Sesame Workshop's effort to find product promotional partners for its DVDs has also raised ire.)
The Kaiser study, which surveyed more than 1,000 parents of children six months to 6 years old, noted that 30 percent of children 6 and under live in homes where the TV is on most or all of the day during meals. Respondents also said their children responded to food ads by asking for either the food advertised, or else asked to be taken to the restaurant shown in the commercial.
"An increasing number of TV shows, videos, Web sites, software programs, video games and interactive toys are designed specifically for babies, toddlers and preschoolers," the study said. "But scientific research about the impact of media use on babies and toddlers has not kept pace with the marketplace. As a result, very little is known for sure about what is good and bad when it comes to media exposure in early childhood."
A panel of media, academic and developmental experts today debated the wisdom of exposing young children to too much media. The debate took place here in conjunction with the release of the study, which is subtitled "Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and Their Parents."
Some, like Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychology and pediatrics at George Washington Medical School, said parents are being misguided into thinking it's fine to let young children watch TV. "Screen time for kids is bad," Greenspan said. "It affects the way the child learns to pay attention."
But others, like Alice Cahn, vp of programming and development at the Cartoon Network, said parents are ultimately responsible for allowing kids to watch. "What is important for young children is a balanced set of activities and screen media can be a part of it," Cahn said.
Vicky Rideout, vp and director of Kaiser's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media, said parents often rely on TV to make their lives more manageable. "Parents use media to help them keep their kids occupied, calm them down, avoid family squabbles and teach their kids the things parents are afraid they don't have time to teach themselves," she said.
Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a coalition of healthcare professionals, educators and advocacy groups, said in a statement that exposure to screen media is habit forming, and that watching for several hours is linked to obesity and poor school performance. "It is also primarily through screen media that companies target young children with marketing for junk food, junk toys, and the underlying message is that they need brands in order to be happy," Linn said.
Linn's group has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission about the marketing practices that tout DVDs like Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, arguing that the advertising makes unsubstantiated claims that the product will enhance a child's cognitive development. The group said it plans to sue Kellogg and Viacom for marketing unhealthful food to children.