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.

Hence, Rich says, the more time that a baby spends in from of the television, the less time it will spend engaged in activities that have proven useful in the development of social and intellectual skills -- activities such as face-to-face interactions with family members and those which allow them to physically manipulate their environments.

"Time spent in front of an electronic screen is time away from these activities," he says. "There is strong theoretical evidence that it can be harmful.

"At what point of this process are they going to prune away neurons that are not necessary for watching screens but necessary for interactions in the real world?"

There are also concerns -- as yet unsubstantiated by research -- that the rapidly-changing frames and shifting subjects on television could contribute to attention-deficit disorder, or ADD.

"It's an interesting supposition, and it's possible that things like that may happen," said Dr. Dennis Clemens, chairman of pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., on the ABC News Now show "Healthy Life."

"Part of growing up and learning is being able to focus on things," he said, adding that the rapid-fire nature of many TV programs "makes it very hard for them to concentrate and learn about a task.

"There is certainly correlational evidence that there is a relationship," Rich says. "I won't be at all surprised if that comes out."

'Educational' Programming May Not Help

But what about shows that are designed specifically for children in younger age groups?

In this post-Sesame-Street era, a wave of new programs have claimed the airwaves -- from Blue's Clues to Teletubbies -- that purport to aid in children's cognitive development.

If nothing else, Jana says, the shows do seem to influence the behaviors of parents in letting their children watch such programming.

"I think that parents think that they're doing the right thing, especially when it's billed as educational TV," she says.

However, Rich says that the high hopes many parents have for these shows may not be borne out in their children.

"There is actually a good body of research looking at educational television, and it suggests that under the age of 30 months, children are incapable of really learning anything significant from these programs," he says.

"I think [the shows] are being marketed to in such a way that they genuinely believe they are helping their kids. What they're really being sold is guilt-free electronic babysitting."

What Parents Should Do

Pediatric experts say that fortunately, there are things that parents can do to ensure that TV watching time is still as beneficial as possible for younger children.

"What I like to suggest is that if the children are watching TV, you should try to take that and interact with them on a much more three-dimensional level," Jana says.

She suggests introducing books that relate to the television shows in question or encouraging imaginative games that incorporate elements from the show.

"This is something that makes it not just a two-dimensional, flat-screen experience."

Wasserman adds that parents must also know when to flip the switch and encourage their children to engage in other forms of entertainment.

"Unstructured play is the best thing a child can do," he says. "That's really the activity you need to promote. Even when they are by themselves, they still play using their imagination."