Ella Sirl can't tie her shoes. And most of her breakfast still winds up in her hair as she tries to spoon some oatmeal into her mouth. But the little 2-year-old from Cleveland has some definite opinions about TV. Ella has been watching the tube since infancy. She loves "Dora the Explorer" and is fascinated by the shapes and colors she sees on her "Baby Einstein" DVDs. And she's even developed a tiny-tot crush on the iconic Captain Kirk, cooing at the screen as she watches "Star Trek" re-runs with her dad, Rick.
Ella isn't the only toddler sitting in front of the television set. By 3 months of age, 40 percent of infants are regular TV and DVD viewers, according to new research appearing this week in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. By the time kids reach 2 years of age, 90 percent are watching television.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health and the Tamaki Foundation, is the first to track media viewing in the first two years of life and to examine what this diapered cohort is actually seeing. The results were "absolutely surprising," says the study's lead author, Frederick Zimmerman, associate professor of health services at the University of Washington and coauthor of "The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work For Your Kids" (Rodale Books, 2006). Zimmerman talked to NEWSWEEK about why some parents think TV may be A-OK for infants and toddlers—and why researchers like him have their doubts. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: How was the study designed?
Frederick Zimmerman: We did phone interviews with more than 1,000 parents with kids 2 months old to 2 years old. We asked them about time use, essentially how they use their available time to interact with their children. We asked about the toys the kids played with and how often a parent reads to a child. And we asked about TV and videos and DVDs and whether parents allowed their kids to watch this type of media.
What did you find out?
Much to our surprise, 40 percent of infants are watching about one hour of TV, DVDs or videos every day, by 3 months of age. By age 2, 90 percent are watching some type of programming for about 90 minutes a day.
So were these kids watching "Grey's Anatomy" or "Sesame Street"?
Believe it or not, kids were watching a fair amount of adult programming. Only about half of the time an infant spent in front of the TV could be considered educational programming. The remaining time was split between noneducational programming and adult television.
Were those results the same for all socioeconomic levels?
Yes. We tested for race, income and education. There were some modest differences, though not enough to be significant. Children of parents who were better educated, for example, spent slightly less time watching television. But race or socioeconomic levels were not major determinants. It was a phenomenon across all walks of life.
Why do parents allow such young children to watch TV?
Nearly 30 percent of these parents told us they believed that TV, DVDs or videos were beneficial, helping with a child's brain development. Others believed their infants or toddlers enjoyed TV. Some parents use media as an electronic babysitter so they could do other things.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is clear in their recommendations for a media-blackout for kids under 2 years of age. Why the disconnect between those recommendations and what parents are doing?
Many parents have accepted the guidelines on vaccinations and no spanking. But television and other forms of media are different. Most parents don't believe that TV is potentially dangerous to their children at such a young age. These are parents—roughly ages 25 to 35—who grew up with TV in the household and they seemed to be very comfortable using TV in their parenting. Plus, marketers of infant-directed programming have been much more successful than the academic community in getting their message out to parents that their products are supposedly helpful. But there is no research that says television viewing through the first months and the first few years of life is beneficial.
What does research show?
All the current research is pointing the same way. It is not clear-cut, but it is very suggestive, that excessive viewing, more than 30 to 60 minutes a day before 3 years of age, is associated with a lot or problems later on, such as obesity, poor cognitive development, poor attention control and aggressive behavior. Much more research needs to be done in these areas, though, before we have a crystal-clear picture of these effects.
If you had your way, would every household be a TV-free zone?
Oh, no. I like television. I'm a fan of "The Wire." I have young children, ages 3 and 5, who watch TV. There are some great shows out there for kids that age. The key is for parents to plan their children's television experience with the same care and thoughtfulness that goes into choosing a school. After all, by some estimates, children spend more time watching television than in school. So it pays to start planning their TV experience early. TV is like a power saw. Follow the directions and it's a great tool. Use it improperly and you can have some major problems.
What do you suggest as an alternative to the tube?
I'm the father of two young boys; I know that parents sometimes need a break. But if you have infants and toddlers, remember that children of this age absolutely thrive on physical closeness. Read a book to your kids; give them some plastic dishes to play with while you're cooking. Don't resort to the TV as a default. Every child is different, so the recommendations would have to be different. Parents know in their gut what is right. They will find it easiest to make decisions they are comfortable with if they take some time to think and find out the pros and cons of television.