Kids Who Literally Drool Over Television

I’m guilty!

The moment a video called Babysongs went into our VCR, my life became so serene. It was the late 1980’s and we were the new parents of a wonderful young boy. Grandma, who could find the most unusual things in mail order catalogues, gave us a videocassette with short musical segments featuring babies and young children of all shapes and sizes merely playing and having fun.

Working in television at the time, I scoffed at the unsophisticated production values and wondered how I could make money selling something so simple. But then I noticed my son who, for the first time I could recall, was transfixed to the tube.

From that point on, the tape was like a fire alarm behind a glass door. When life got crazy, pull out a hammer, smash the glass and hit play. Suddenly the baby was stopped in his tracks, and later his newborn little sister would follow suit. That tape was still limping along seven years later when my last daughter was born.

The magic of this tape surprised me at the time, but since then I have discovered many parents who use a plethora of things that sing, dance, and tell stories—all aimed at the very youngest of consumers. And I understand why. Parents really do need a break sometimes, and many of these products tout high educational value. However, even if their nature is very innocent, what effect are these early media habits having on kids?

The Kaiser Family Foundation released a new study this week that analyzes that very question. Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers is one of the first glimpses into the media habits of extremely young children and their parents.

Not surprisingly, the report tells us that 80% of kids use some sort of screen media such as TV, movies, and video games. Fortunately the same proportion still also play outside, read or are read to, and listen to music.

But what does raise eyebrows is how young these toddlers are when they begin choosing the type of media they want. Remember… the age range of this study is zero to six. 77% of them turn on the TV themselves, and about two-thirds ask for particular shows or channel surf with the remote. One third use the computer solo, with some even loading their own CD-ROMs and looking for specific websites on the Internet. Sales of drool-proof keyboards are about to surge!

Acknowledging that about two-thirds live in homes where the TV is on half the time, and one-third claim the TV is on “always” or “most of the time,” researchers are eager to know if this high media environment has effects in other aspects of a child’s life.

While this study is not trying to predict the long-term implications, it clearly shows some trends forming in homes where television reigns supreme. In a “heavy TV household,” 77% of children watch every day, where as in other homes the number is 56%. Even more interesting is in heavy TV households 42% say children began watching regularly under the age of one year. The children in these homes are slightly less likely to read every day (59% read daily in a heavy TV home vs. 68% in other homes). For children aged two and older, 50% more of them are reported as knowing how to read if they live in a home with lower TV usage.

But the most startling find was in the bedroom. Of children 4 to 6, 43% have televisions in their rooms, and so do close to a third of children under the age of three. More astonishing yet, one quarter of the six and under crowd also have a DVD or VCR in their bedroom, and a tenth of them also have a video game console.

When compared to a 1999 Kaiser study on children and media, these numbers show an upward trend in increased bedroom media use by the very young. Not surprisingly, children with these devices in their rooms average higher media use times.

Some of the other findings from the study show that parents feel computer use can provide the most positive benefits for their children’s learning, and that music is the number one media choice for very young children—many have their own music appliances (cassette or DVD players) and even operate them. Reading is also alive and doing well—it’s just getting more attention in homes where TV is on a leash.

Another encouraging sign is that 90% of the 1,000 randomly selected parents in this telephone survey say they enforce household rules regarding television content shown to their young children. But the number drops significantly, to 69%, when asked if they restrict the time their child spends using a particular type of media.

Even the best things in life are far more beneficial when used in moderation. Now that my youngest is eight, Babysongs is quietly occupying a dusty corner in our videotape drawer. Movies, select TV shows, documentaries, and computer games—all of which my wife and I have personally approved of—have taken its place. But we, like many other parents, need to recognize there are only so many hours in our children’s day. Even good media can displace far more beneficial activities that families could enjoy.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…