Youngest Children Becoming Habitual TV Viewers

There is a common stereotype that exists concerning children and TV -- namely, that most parents who allow their children to watch television are simply looking for an electronic babysitter.

It is a stereotype that Dr. Laura Jana, media spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), has heard many times -- and which she says, as a mother of three, is not entirely accurate.

"I don't know that it's just a matter of planting kids in front of the TV, which I think is most people's first reaction," says Jana, who is also a member of the section of AAP that discusses media's influence on children.

"I can understand why people do it... I think that part of it is that parents think they're doing a good thing."

After all, she says, most parents perceive the new wave of "educational" programming for young children to be, well, educational.

But new research reveals the extent to which children are watching television, as well as how young these viewers are.

And according to most pediatricians, the numbers do not paint a healthy picture.

A study published in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics reveals that on any given day about 75 percent of children ages 0 to 6 watch nearly an hour and a half of television, on average.

The research further shows that one out of every five 0- to 2-year-olds and more than one third of 3- to 6-year-olds have a television in their bedroom. And about 40 percent of 3-month-olds also watch TV.

Thus far, the exact impact of all of this TV watching on young children is not entirely clear.

"We're sort of in the midst of a vast, uncontrolled experiment right now," says Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children's Hospital Boston.

But Rich says that knowing what we do about the developing brain, the effect of this much television can't be good -- and at worst, it could mean that many children are not getting the stimulation they need to develop both mentally and socially.

What's the Harm?

The Pediatrics study is just the latest of thousands on the subject of children and television. In years past, researchers have studied everything from how TV affects kids' sleep to the impact that it has on obesity, grades and behavior.

Concerns over children's TV watching even prompted the AAP to release recommendations on the activity.

For kids older than two, no more than two hours of exposure to electronic media is suggested, while kids younger than two should not be exposed to the television at all.

Some pediatricians say the recommendations are a good start, as they believe excessive TV viewing can have big impacts on child development.

"The harm is several-fold," says Dr. Michael Wasserman, a pediatrician with the Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans, La.

"It's diminishing their intellectual development. Watching television is a passive activity, and with children you are not promoting their cognitive development and speech."

And the concerns could go much further than the archetypical "TV-rots-your-brain" mantra of old.

Rich says that researchers also know that babies' brains, in their first two years of life, "prunes" unnecessary connections. Environment plays a huge role in determining what stays and what gets cut.

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