- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

TOKYO — Television, the Internet and high-tech gadgets have penetrated everyday life, but most Japanese are unaware of their harmful effects on children, specialists say.

Children are constantly surrounded by video games, compact disc and digital video disc players, cellular telephones, large-screen televisions and computers with Internet access.

A government study in 2004 found that:

• 69.3 percent of Japanese households use one or more computers, up from 37.7 percent five years earlier.

• 84.7 percent of Japanese households had at least one cell phone, up from 64.9 percent in 1999.

• Internet users in Japan numbered 79.5 million, more than half of the population and a dramatic increase from 27 million in 1999. Moreover, 62.8 percent of children ages 6 to 12 and 90.7 percent of 13- to 19-year-olds surf the Internet.

Addiction to digital media can deprive children of sleep, opportunities to communicate with others and play outdoors, which can affect their physical and mental development, said Children and Media, a nonprofit organization in Fukuoka on Kyushu, the third largest of Japan’s four main islands.

Later bedtimes

Children and Media’s 2004 study for the government found that roughly one in four primary and middle-school pupils spent more than six hours per day in contact with various media. That pushes back the youngsters’ normal bedtime, the group said. For example, only 25 percent of children in fourth grade and 10 percent of those in sixth grade go to bed before 9 p.m., the study discovered.

“Children stay up that late because they keep watching TV,” said Mariko Yamada, executive director of Children and Media and professor of clinical psychology at Kyushu Otani Junior College.

German counterparts told her that German children usually go to bed between 7:30 and 8 p.m.

Asked about the bedtime of Japanese children, “I could not say that their average bedtime was actually 9:40 p.m. so I said 9 p.m.,” she recalled. “Still, they were appalled.” The average bedtime for 3- to 5 year-olds has now passed 10 p.m., she said. The loss of sleep “is believed to cause more children to have concentration problems and behavioral disorders, becoming upset or impulsive.”

“That’s why we have more harried and distracted children,” said Atsuo Saito, author of children’s literature and former executive managing director of Fukuinkan Shoten, a Tokyo-based publishing company.

Communication problems

Yusaku Tazawa, vice chairman of a children and media committee with the Japan Pediatric Association, agrees.

“Perhaps these children are very good at playing video games. But they are not good at communicating with their parents and other children,” Mr. Tazawa said. “The problem gets worse year after year.”

Lack of communication between a child and parents could lead to family breakdown, Mr. Saito said.

Specialists voice serious concern about media exposure for longer hours to babies and young children. That can affect when babies start talking, the Japan Pediatric Society said. In a study of 1,900 18-month-olds in three regions, pediatricians found that babies exposed to television for longer hours start talking later.

“This is one of the most serious problems in Japanese society today, although most people are unaware of it,” Mr. Saito said.

The Japan Pediatric Society recommends that parents not allow their children to watch television or videos for long periods.

Although kindergarten and nursery school teachers are becoming aware of the harmful effects of media on children, many elementary school teachers, government officials and some pediatricians are not, Mrs. Yamada said.

The government and teachers encourage children to use the Internet as schools acquire more computers. “Some [innocent] Internet search could whisk them to Web sites that contain sexually-explicit content,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“What one sees in childhood affects one’s behavior,” said Mr. Saito, a lecturer on the potentially harmful effects of media on children. “These days, young parents who enjoy horror movies watch them in their baby’s presence. Such a baby is not likely to smile; instead, she occasionally has a horrified look.”

Taking action

In 1998, the United Nations warned the Japanese government against overexposing children to media, but the report did not receive wide exposure.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern at “the insufficient measures introduced to protect children from the harmful effects of the printed, electronic and audio-visual media — in particular, violence and pornography.”

Although the panel recommended that Japan “introduce additional measures,” the government has done little to implement them, analysts said.

Government officials, however, said they have been working on the problems with nonprofit organizations such as Children and Media.

The Japan Pediatric Association recommended that children 2 and younger avoid watching TV and videos; that children stop watching TV and videos during meals; that children’s media exposure be limited to two hours a day and minutes a day for video games; that televisions, videocassette recorders, DVD players and computers not be kept in a child’s room; and that children and parents lay out specific ground rules.

However, because many parents enjoy watching television or text messaging, “educating the public remains a daunting task,” Mr. Saito said.

Some communities have taken action by calling for a “No TV Day.”

In Misasa, a rural community of 7,690 in western Japan, a local government survey found three years ago that many children were skipping breakfast. Parents, teachers and public officials blamed the problem on late television viewing.

“No TV Day” there is observed on the 15th of each month.

Yasuaki Matsuura, an official of Misasa’s education board, said the rule “induced family members to have more conversations and children to sleep more,” but “some of them are still absorbed in cartoon shows, especially since the recent introduction of round-the-clock cable television in this area.”

Although many children became accustomed to “No TV Day” more easily than expected, some fathers don’t like it,” he said. “They want to watch baseball games on TV, now that the [baseball] season has just started.”

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