- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

New research has found that computers and television are omnipresent even in the lives of American preschoolers.

More than half of preschoolers use computers and more than 70 percent of children 2 and younger watch TV, according to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation released yesterday. It is the first national study on media use among children ages 6 months to 6 years.

“It’s not just teenagers who are wired up and tuned in, it’s babies in diapers as well,” said Victoria Rideout, an entertainment media researcher at the Kaiser Foundation.

With so much new media targeted at infants and toddlers, Ms. Rideout said, “it’s critical that we learn more about the impact it’s having on child development.”

The results are unsettling to many child-development experts, given the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that children younger than 2 should not watch any television.

The reason for this recommendation is because babies and toddlers need interaction with real people and physical things — blocks, pots and pans, even mud — in the first two years of life to fully develop their brains, Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Boston, said yesterday.

In addition, “when children are watching TV, they’re being marketed to,” said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. “We’re making children consumers at age 1.”

Not long ago, children were introduced to mass media through books and comics, said Ellen Wartella, dean of the communications school at the University of Texas. The new pathway is electronic and “this is a trend we must follow,” she said at a forum yesterday at the Kaiser Foundation’s offices in the District.

The Kaiser study, conducted this spring with the Children’s Digital Media Center, focused on more than 1,000 parents with children under younger than 6.

The study found that most children’s homes are “packed” with electronic media products — half the children live in homes with three or more televisions.

Most children — 65 percent — live where a television was on “at least half the time,” and 45 percent of parents agreed that when they were busy, they often used TV to occupy their children.

The study also found that TV viewing starts early: 74 percent of children younger than 2 have watched TV and 26 percent of these toddlers have a TV in their bedrooms.

It covered computers and video games and found both were popular with children ages 4 to 6. Sixty-four percent know how to use a “mouse” and 40 percent load their own disks in a computer. Fifty-six percent of preschool boys and 36 percent of preschool girls have played video games.

The study further found that 11 percent of children younger than 2 have computer experience and 3 percent have played video games.

The Kaiser study found that more than 70 percent of parents believe computers are beneficial to their children’s learning.

Parents, generally, also were favorable about TV’s benefits, with 43 percent saying it helped with learning and 21 percent saying TV had “not much effect” on learning. Only 27 percent of parents said TV was “harmful” to learning.

The study did not find that electronic media replaced listening to music, outdoor playtime or reading — these remained popular activities. However, for many children ages 4 to 6, “screen time” ate up about 30 minutes of their average outside playtime and about eight minutes a day of reading time.

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