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Media Use by Young Children

Remember when the American Academy of Pediatrics issued its recommendation five years ago that children two and under should not watch any television, and that children over two should limit exposure to two hours per day? Many parents seemed as reassured by this advice as they were confused. How could such an esteemed organization give advice that was “so out of touch with real American family life,” as one mother commented to the evening news? In those five years, children’s media appetites have hardly slackened. In fact, ‘screen time’ has eclipsed ‘TV watching’ as the name for such activities, given the plethora of devices on which real or animated moving and talking figures can now inform, distract, stimulate and baby-sit our young. So what is a parent to do?

An enlightening new study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop,, “Always Connected: Young Children’s Media Use is On the Rise (March 2011),” tells us what parents are actually doing. It seems like many parents don’t know about the guidelines anymore, given that the majority of parents ignore them.   They may feel a need to ‘plug the kids into something besides me [i.e. the parent],’ or they turn a deaf ear because they feel that media exposure stimulates intellectual growth and development or they feel that ‘it’s something the world will expect my kid to be able to use, so the earlier the better.’ The report goes on:

  • For the time being, television remains the favorite medium.  90% of the average families sampled with children over five had kids who were regular, even enthusiastic, viewers. They watched an average of three hours per day.
  • Media use by young children ranges across a variety of platforms. 80% of sampled kids five and under are on the internet at least once a week and slightly less than half of all six-years-olds regularly play video games.
  • Media multitasking is growing quickly, with over a third of two- to eleven-year-olds using the television and the internet simultaneously (sound familiar?).
  • These usage patterns are likely to change, given that four of the top five electronic devices owned by children are mobile platforms.

So, back to that question of what is a parent to do, given that the expert advice out there seems not to have kept pace? [Keep your eyes open for some fresh guidelines from NAEYC on this topic coming to its website this year – maybe they WILL have kept pace].

  • If you want your kids to play imaginatively (great pre-literacy foundation!), keep the playthings away from the screen. University of Massachusetts researchers found that toddler play erodes and disorganizes when TV is on.
  • Keep the media diet balanced.  Print materials, screen devices, video games and DVDs should be rotated and refreshed (if not occasionally ‘lost’). Think of nutrition’s representation of a healthy, balanced diet. The food pyramid evokes positive images of a ‘media pyramid.
  • The best way to use the positive impact of TV (yes, there is one and this is it) is to engage parent-child pairs in co-viewing programming that stimulates learning and delight with the use of humor and playfulness (not silliness), novel topics and perspectives. This prevents the use of TV as a baby-sitter, but that’s the point. There is no stand-in for you, or the delight that you take, in your child’s growth and health.