Screen Babies::What Do Kids Lose, Gain from Screen Time?

    by Mark Glaser
    May 25, 2006

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    It’s easy to get angry and self-righteous when hearing the results of a study like the recent one from the Kaiser Family Foundation about young kids’ media usage. The facts come spewing off your tongue as if you’re a preacher in a room full of sinners: 61% of babies aged 1 year or younger watch screen media (TV, videos, computer) in a typical day; 29% of children 2 to 3 years old have a TV in their bedroom; 43% of children under 2 years old watch TV every day and nearly one in five (18%) watch videos or DVDs every day.

    And all of this is happening despite the objections of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that children under 2 don’t have any screen time whatsoever, as they need to develop interpersonal or other skills first. (I discussed some of these issues previously on MediaShift here.)

    But before I get my diatribe into high gear against parents who are using screen media as a crutch and don’t have enough face-to-face time with young kids, I should probably be honest and share some of my own first-hand parenting experience with my 3-year-old son, Julian.

    • When Julian was very young, perhaps four or five months old, I used to play music on my computer, with him watching the visualization program, and he occasionally watched “Baby Einstein” type videos. (The survey found that 24% of kids under 1 year old watched DVDs or videos on a typical day.)
    • Most mornings when I get up with him to take him to school, Julian will watch about 30 minutes of TV while I shower and get ready for work. And there are times when I have to get work done where the TV becomes a temporary babysitter for him for an hour or so. (One mom surveyed by Kaiser said, “If he is watching TV, I can get other things done. I don’t have to constantly watch him.”)
    • Sometimes, Julian will also eat his breakfast in front of the TV, and occasionally will eat dinner in front of TV with me alongside him. (According to the survey, 17% of kids 6 and under eat breakfast in front of a TV on a typical day.)
    • Though we try to keep Julian’s TV watching down to an hour or less of TV per day, that varies widely and we have to set rules on it. (Thirty-nine percent of parents have no rules about their children’s TV time, according to Kaiser.)
    • Julian gets a 20-minute chunk of time on the computer each week, usually to type an email to his grandparents or play games on Sesame Street’s website. I feel like that time helps him learn. (Sixty-nine percent of parents surveyed believe computers mostly help a child’s learning, while 15% feel it mostly hurts.)

    So who am I to proselytize about kids spending less time with screen media? Well, I can say that Julian doesn’t have a TV in his bedroom, he doesn’t watch it everyday, and the TV isn’t on in our house all day even if we’re not watching it.

    For our family, we try to keep everything in moderation. We haven’t thrown the TV out the window, but we try to mix TV watching with outdoor activities and play time with other kids and computer time and drawing and painting.

    Kaiser did find a strong connection between the amount of time parents spent with screen media and how that affected how much time kids spent with screen media. Most parents feel that TV and computer time is helping their kids learn, and that might well be true. But we should also think about what screen time might be taking away from our lives.


    “The problem is what you are not doing if the electronic moment grows too large,” psychiatrist Edward Hallowell told Time magazine in a cover story on multitasking kids. “You are not having family dinner, you are not having conversations…It’s not so much that the video game is going to rot your brain, it’s what you are not doing that’s going to rot your life.”

    What do you think? Are kids spending too much time with screen media, and how should parents scale that back? Or do you think screen media are great tools for learning? How do you strike a balance in your family? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    • Barbie

      I think it depends on what kids watch and/or do with ‘screen time’ that determines if its helping them learn or not. It’s definatley subjective.

    • As an educator who has visited the homes of many students of working class families, I’ve got to say that television is the most destructive influence I’ve seen in these children’s lives.

      Tell me how much learning can go on in a small apartment with the television blaring more than 8 hours a day? It’s not necessarily the kids watching the television that’s the problem. It’s the fact that the loud squeeks and squawks from a television set intrude on students’ personal privacy and study-space needs.

      And what options do these children have? Tell their hard working parents to turn off the television? Try to find a safe place in the neighborhood to do some studying? Walk out on their families?

      These students are caught between a rock and a hard place. Television is ruining the quality of their lives — and guess what, nobody is going to do anything about it.

      I hope someone out there has the courage to make a public service announcement about the benefits of silence and tranquility in students’ lives. We need much more of a national dialogue on this topic. We need someone to write a play that gets to the heart of this matter.

    • Kaili

      I think it’s really interesting that parents often seem more prone to limit internet time, which is interactive and often has kids reading and writing (to family members even!) than TV time, which is entirely passive.

    • Jay Menon

      I feel that it’s what you watch as opposed to how much you watch, that is destructive. By the same token, I do feel that kids nowadays spend far too much time watching TV. It limits their interaction with the family, and is an entirely passive activity. Even educational programs are limited in their ability to stimulate the brain, in the manner that reading does. Unfortunately in most cases, parents use TV more as a babysitting service than anything else. Economic circumstances are responsible and much as we would like it to be otherwise, it is a reality in today’s world.

    • Phil Shapiro wrote: “I hope someone out there has the courage to make a public service announcement about the benefits of silence and tranquility in students’ lives. We need much more of a national dialogue on this topic.”

      I totally agree. What’s more: to what degree does TV encourage kids to be passive, to be “viewers” rather than “participants”?

      As to Phil’s point that the kids are caught between a rock and a hard place — that they don’t have the power to turn off the TV, in other words — I’m not sure it would help even if they *could* have control of it. It’s a pretty addicting box.

      My own son is 11 years older than your Julian, Mark…and he was raised on a similarly limited screen diet. Now 14, he thinks my restrictions on TV are almost ridiculous — and he doesn’t understand why the access isn’t constant. It gets harder to control as they get older, and in our house it’s a constant battle, which tells me it’s a cultural AND family issue.

      So would the kids turn it off? Probably not.

    • bridget clark

      I think it all has to do with the parents using it as a babysitter that is the problem.
      I think that if parents are there with there child making it more of a learning exersise that babbysitter time. I think thats what turns the tide. I do agree it should be limited in time and definatly never used as a babysitter.

    • yoi

      this was crap info wat does it tell me really

    • Sigrid Hillscan

      I hope parents will be aware, when setting limits on screen time, that many schools are using computers and other forms of digital instruction more and more. If your child spends time at school, or day care, using a computer, watching videos, etc. COUNT IT!

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