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Babes in Media Land: Even youngest children are immersed in multimedia world, groundbreaking study shows

If you have young children in your life, your holiday shopping list may include Baby Einstein, computer keyboard toppers, Barney videos or JumpStart Baby software. The explosion of new media aimed at the youngest children in our society has consumers reaching for their wallets even as child development experts raise their eyebrows.

Children age six and under spend an average of two hours a day with screen media, mostly TV and videos

A groundbreaking new study, co-authored by University of Texas at Austin researchers Dr. Elizabeth Vandewater and Dr. Ellen Wartella, examines how widespread the use of media is among our youngest children. “Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers” is the first study of its kind, and its findings are causing a stir and highlighting the need for future research.

“Until a generation ago, children were being introduced to media probably through books and through reading comics on their parent’s lap. This is no longer the case,” says Wartella, dean of the College of Communication. “Children today are being introduced through electronic media to all kinds of media use at very young ages.”

Wartella and Vandewater, assistant professor in the Department of Human Ecology in the College of Natural Sciences, were co-investigators with Victoria Rideout, vice president at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the study’s sponsor. Data from the national study confirm what many already suspected: in a media saturated culture, media reaches all the way into the crib.

Children age six and under spend an average of about two hours a day with screen media (1:58), about the same amount of time they spend playing outside (2:01) and about three times as much time as they spend reading or being read to (39 minutes). Saturday morning cartoons and educational programming such as Sesame Street have been popular for a generation, but screen media today extends to computers and video games, and the quantity of programming has multiplied.

Elizabeth Vandewater
Dr. Elizabeth Vandewater

And then there are videos and DVDs. According to their parents, on a typical day, about half of all children age zero to six will watch a video or DVD. The numbers don’t change much when you look at the youngest children. Forty-two percent of children under age two will watch a video or DVD on any given day.

In fact, it’s the numbers relating to the youngest children that researchers have found most surprising.

“I had no idea that young children—I mean babies—are being immersed in media the way they are,” says Wartella, who is a nationally recognized expert in the area of children and the media. “I think the single most surprising piece of data was finding that 26 percent of children under two have television sets in their bedroom.”

It’s a fact that Vandewater, who directs the university’s Center for Research on Interactive Technology, Television and Children (CRITC), finds shocking as well.

“That one is a real puzzle to me,” Vandewater says. “I really am not sure what’s going on there, and why parents would buy a television for an infant’s room. It’s an important question for future research.”

The study offers a solid baseline in understanding media use, but it doesn’t necessarily target why parents make the choices they do. Right now, researchers still find themselves turning to anecdotes. Vandewater tells the story of how a technician who came to her house to fix her cable TV, upon hearing about her research, asked her about using the television to help his infant fall asleep. His friends swear by it, and he wanted to know what Vandewater thought of the idea. Vandewater wonders if using the television as a sleep device is why infants and toddlers are likely to have a TV in their rooms.

“I admit it isn’t something that we asked about, but I really wish we had,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s what’s going on with the television in the bedroom, but by the way, it’s a bad idea. Television activates the reticular activating system, which is the system that needs to shut down to allow us to sleep. So you’re interfering with their ability to shut down their system and learn how to sleep on their own.”

Ellen Wartella
Dr. Ellen Wartella

Whether it’s in the bedroom, living room, kitchen or elsewhere, the television appears to be ubiquitous in American households. Fully half have three or more TVs in the house, and 65 percent of children six and under live in a house where the television is on at least half the time, whether or not someone is watching it. One-third live in “heavy” TV households, where the television is left on “always” or “most of the time.”

Children in these heavy TV households are less likely to read every day than other children, and when they do read or are read to, it is for a shorter time than for children in non-heavy TV households. In fact, these children are less likely to be able to read at all: 24 percent of children over the age of two in heavy TV households can read, compared to 36 percent of children in other homes. These data document a negative relationship between the amount of time the TV is left on in the home and children’s reading, but they don’t necessarily suggest a causal relationship. It’s possible that other factors, either apart from or in addition to television, explain the differences.

Many of these children are active computer users. About half (48 percent) of all children six and under have used a computer. Among the four- to six-year-olds, more than one in four use a computer every day. And “Old MacDonald” hasn’t seen its day. Music remains a staple in children’s lives, with eight out of 10 children listening to it in a typical day. Reading, also, holds its place in children’s lives. Two out of three children read or are read to every day, and almost all parents consider books “very important” to children’s intellectual development.

The fact that many parents consider electronic media also important to children’s intellectual development may help explain its omnipresence in American households. Nearly three-quarters of parents (72 percent) believe that using a computer “mostly helps” a child’s intellectual development. And far more believe that TV “mostly helps” children learn (43 percent) than that it “mostly hurts” learning (27 percent).

65 percent of children age six and under live in households where the TV is on at least half the time

“I call that the Sesame Street effect,” says Wartella. “Sesame Street and its successors—planned, educational programs for young children—have really made their mark on parents, who believe that you can find good educational television for preschool children. I think as a consequence of that, when marketers of computer software or games make educational claims, they have a more receptive parental audience.”

More than a decade of research demonstrates that planned educational programming has positive benefits. But there are no comparable data on other media or on media targeted for very young children, despite its proliferation.

This concerns child development experts. Little is known about the impact of screen media on brain development. When we are born, most of the organs in our body are fully developed. Our liver, for example, doesn’t continue to develop as we grow older. It only increases in size. But our brains develop into adulthood, with a density of development occurring in the first few years of life.

With this in mind, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued the recommendation that no child under the age of two be placed in front of a television. Their recommendation is based on research that shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and others for healthy brain growth.

It is not, however, based on data about the effect of television on brain growth. Researchers don’t have any. But neither do the product developers who are fueling the growth in media aimed at young children. The truth is, we are inundated by media, but we don’t know what it means for our young children.

About half of all children age six and under have used a computer

“We need to step up our research to look at both short-term and long-term effects of early screen media use by preschool children,” says Wartella. “And we need to track media use of young children better than we have.”

So what do parents—and gift-buying aunts, uncles and friends—do in the meantime?

To begin with, bear in mind what we do know about children’s development. Babies and toddlers require interaction with others for healthy brain development. The content of programming has been shown to matter a lot in older children. And violent content, in any platform, is related to antisocial and aggressive behavior.

“Media use is no different than anything else,” says Vandewater. “The general public service message to parents of ‘Ask who. Ask where. Ask when.’ applies to media as well. With older kids, you can ask, ‘Who are you online with? What do you talk about?’ With younger kids, ‘What are you doing, sweetie? What are you watching?’”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that parents feel challenged in making and enforcing media rules because often their children know and understand the media better than they do. Children are essentially natives to media, whereas adults are immigrants. But the “Zero to Six” study found that parents who made and always enforced media rules had children who are more likely to read in a typical day, to read every day, to spend more time reading and to also spend more time playing outdoors.

81 percent of parents of children age six and under have seen their children imitate behavior from TV

Vandewater also says it’s possible to raise children who are savvy media consumers. By sitting down and watching TV or working on the computer with children, parents can essentially influence what their children are taking in. They can help them understand that the images they take in may stay with them a long time, even the rest of their lives. And they can temper the marketing and commercials that accompany even educational programming.

“It’s not realistic to expect parents to spend every waking moment with their children,” she says. “But it is realistic for parents to talk with their kids about what they’re watching. We know that parents’ messages can have a big impact. Parents can have a huge impact.”

This is especially important since we don’t know the impact of media itself on young children’s lives and development. The “Zero to Six” study is the first to show just how immersed in media our youngest children are. It points to the importance of funding and conducting more research.

“Given how much time preschool children spend with media, I think we’re obligated to understand what impact it has on their development,” says Wartella. “It’s not a minor part of children’s lives, even babies’ lives, any longer.”

For the complete study, “Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers,” visit the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Web site.

Vivé Griffith

Photo of Dr. Vandewater and banner photo: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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