- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

What do American kids ages 2 to 5 do an average of 32 hours a week?

It’s not napping, playing outside or building spaceships out of Legos.

It’s watching TV, according to a new report released by Nielsen, the ratings company.

According to the report, television-watching is at an eight-year high with children ages 2 to 5 leading the way, closely followed by children ages 6 to 11, who watch an average of 28 hours a week.

The reason the younger group outpaces the older? School — of all things — gets in the way of TV time for elementary-schoolers, according to Nielsen.

“These figures do kind of take my breath away,” says Vicky Rideout, a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of the foundation’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health.

“We’ve effectively pushed through what we previously thought was a ceiling in media use,” Ms. Rideout says. “It’s really become a 24/7 thing.”

And she predicts it will only increase from here on out because overall media use in the past few years has gone from being confined to the living room to being accessible anywhere and everywhere, including on the cell phone in your pocket.

“Now there’s even an iPhone app for Rubber Ducky,” a learning game for babies, Ms. Rideout says.

So, what’s the problem with all this television — not to mention all the other media available?

“That’s exactly how a lot of parents approach it. They don’t worry about it because they say watching television keeps their kid happy, in control and quiet,” says Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston, and an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

“But so would heroin — and you’d never give your kid heroin,” Dr. Rich says and chuckles at the bizarreness of that notion.

While no one is claiming that television is like heroin, it certainly can affect everything from learning to social interactions to physical well-being, Dr. Rich says.

Particularly in children up to 30 months old, who won’t learn anything from watching television — even if it’s education programming like “Sesame Street,” he says.

“The brain is just not ready for something like ‘Sesame Street’ until a child is at least 3 years old,” Dr. Rich says.

And no, he says, your children will not fall behind because you choose not to give them every toddler laptop and early-learning DVD in the world — even if marketers might want parents to believe just that, he says.

The recent “Baby Einstein” backlash can help illustrate the point. It turns out that the video series didn’t produce geniuses, and while producer Disney hasn’t acknowledged any wrongdoing, it has agreed to provide consumers with a full refund.

Because, Dr. Rich says, digital media is an ineffective teaching tool for the youngest viewers. It takes six repetitions for a toddler to start mimicking an action displayed on a screen; in real life, the child will mimic an action after seeing it once.

Instead, what the intellect of a toddler really thrives on is open-ended problem solving, such as building with blocks, and social interaction, including learning how to relate to other people.

“You want to make sure children touch, relate and feel things in real life,” Ms. Rideout says.

But, she says, watching television — or even having the television on in the background — hampers this interaction.

“It’s a distraction for both children and adults,” she says. “And it decreases the interaction between parents and children.”

Yet, according to a recent report by the University of Michigan, a television is on most of the time in more than 50 percent of American homes as a kind of wallpaper of sound and images. Also, in more than 60 percent of homes, the television is on during meals.

When children reach age 3, they may benefit from short exposures of age-appropriate television such as “Sesame Street” and “Blue’s Clues.”

Even then, however, it’s important for children to switch activities often because that allows them to consolidate and sort the information they have taken in, Dr. Rich says.

He recommends no more than 20 to 30 minutes of television in one sitting for the 3- to 5-year-old crowd. Overall? No more than one hour a day.

In fact, he says, television-watching should only happen after all other physical, intellectual and social needs have been satisfied, including adequate sleep (up to 13 hours a day for children up to 5 years old), family meals, physical activity and social interactions.

“What we feed a child’s mind is as important as what we feed a child’s body,” Dr. Rich says. “At almost every age, television can be a fun and good part of a varied diet for the brain.”

• Gabriella Boston can be reached at gboston@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide