Study: Young Kids 'Immersed' in TV
Heaviest viewers have reading problems later
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/2/2003 7:00:00 PM
For a quarter of America's toddlers, televisions are as likely as toy boxes to be in their bedrooms. That's no surprise. Programmers are targeting tykes still in diapers just as they would any other part of their audience.
America's youngest children are "immersed" in TV and other forms of electronic media, even those who don't have a TV in their room, finds a new Kaiser Family Foundation report. According to a survey of 1,065 parents, 43% of children under two watch TV every day, and 25% have a set in their bedroom. The presence of a set in so many toddlers' rooms is "astounding," said Ellen Wartella, one of the study's authors and dean of the University of Texas College of Communication.
Whether the early submersion into electronic culture is good or bad is unclear, the authors say, although they found that children with few limits on screen time don't learn to read as quickly as peers with firm limits.
TV executives on a Washington panel last week agreed that kids-show audiences are skewing increasingly younger. That's not because programmers are targeting young children, they said, but because parents spend more time working and less with their offspring and are increasingly worried about unattended outside play.
Given the ubiquity of electronic media, the TV industry is obligated to fill the programming need with shows that are engaging, educational and, most important, harmless for toddlers and infants, said Sesame Workshop Chief Executive Gary Knell. For better or worse, "parents seem to be blasting through" the American Academy of Pediatricians' recommendation to keep kids younger than 2 away from the TV, he said.
To accommodate the growing number of toddlers in the audience, Sesame Street is slowing down show formats and making them more predictable.
Nickelodeon screens each episode of Blue's Clues in front of focus groups before airing, said Laura Wendt, the net's senior vice president for research and planning.
Despite the warnings, parents are generally happy with what their children are watching. In fact, 58% of the parents surveyed opined that educational TV is "very important" to helping children learn, and 64% reported that TV in general either "mostly helps" or has no affect on learning.
"This is a nice endorsement from parents for the TV their kids are watching," said Victoria Rideout, Kaiser vice president.
The positive marks from parents indicate that programmers are trying to create more-engaging and educational offerings than the cartoons that once typified kids fare, said Scholastic Entertainment President Deborah Forte.
The next step is for station owners to refrain from airing age-inappropriate promotions for other shows during children's programming, Knell asserted, even news promos if they describe violent crimes or war.
The report's authors found that the pediatrics academy's recommendation not to let children under 2 watch television is unrealistic and potentially too strict. The doctors are mostly worried that TV will rob kids of social interaction and physical play. "Kids should be spending time with parents, with siblings, with mud—not watching television," said Dr. Michael Rich, of Children's Hospital, Boston, and head of the Center of Media and Child Health.
All agreed that the biggest danger comes in homes with "heavy" TV exposure—where the set is likely to be left on even when no one is watching. In those homes, children between 2 and 6 are less likely to know how to read or to be daily readers, the study found.
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