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.
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
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
Wartella and Vandewater, assistant professor in the
Department of Human Ecology in the College of Natural Sciences,
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
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
as they spend reading or being read to (39 minutes). Saturday
morning cartoons and educational programming such as Sesame Street
been popular for a generation, but screen media today extends
to computers and video games, and the quantity of programming
And then there are videos and DVDs. According to their
parents, on a typical day, about half of all children age zero
will watch a video or DVD. The numbers don’t change much
when you look at the youngest children. Forty-two percent of
under age two will watch a video or DVD on any given day.
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
books “very important” to children’s intellectual
The fact that many parents consider electronic
media also important to children’s intellectual development
may help explain its omnipresence in American households.
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
“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.
for example, doesn’t continue to develop as we grow
older. It only increases in size. But our brains develop
with a density of development occurring in the first few
years of life.
With this in mind, the American Academy of
the recommendation that no child under the age of two be
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
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.
“We need to step up our research to look at both short-term
and long-term effects of early screen media use by preschool
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
shown to matter a lot in older children. And violent content,
in any platform, is related to antisocial and aggressive
“Media use is no different than anything else,” says
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
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.
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
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,
For the complete study, “Zero
to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and
the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Web site.
Photo of Dr. Vandewater and banner photo: Marsha