Washington, D.C. – Even the very youngest children in America are growing up immersed in media, spending hours a day watching TV and videos, using computers and playing video games, according to a new study released today by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Children six and under spend an average of two hours a day using screen media (1:58), about the same amount of time they spend playing outside (2:01), and well over the amount they spend reading or being read to (39 minutes).
New interactive digital media have become an integral part of children’s lives. Nearly half (48%) of children six and under have used a computer (31% of 0-3 year-olds and 70% of 4-6 year-olds). Just under a third (30%) have played video games (14% of 0-3 year-olds and 50% of 4-6 year-olds). Even the youngest children – those under two – are widely exposed to electronic media. Forty-three percent of those under two watch TV every day, and 26% have a TV in their bedroom (the American Academy of Pediatrics “urges parents to avoid television for children under 2 years old”). In any given day, two-thirds (68%) of children under two will use a screen media, for an average of just over two hours (2:05).
“It’s not just teenagers who are wired up and tuned in, its babies in diapers as well,” said Vicky Rideout, Vice President and Director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, the lead author of the study. “So much new media is being targeted at infants and toddlers, it’s critical that we learn more about the impact it’s having on child development.”
Just what is it doing to the brain? Is it having long lasting effects on cognitive development? The brain still continues to grow into adolescence. It seems reasonable to suppose that environmental stimuli might have some lasting effects beyond what is actually learned.
The role of electronic stimuli on child development seems set to continue to grow as wearable electronic gear becomes cheaper, more reliable, and more sophisticated in what it can accomplish. On the bright side the passive nature of the television watching experience will probably gradually be replaced by more interactive experiences and some of those experiences will become more educational. Though other experience will become more pure fantasy.
Impact of TV on reading. According to the study, children who have a TV in their bedroom or who live in “heavy” TV households spend significantly more time watching than other children do, and less time reading or playing outside. Those with a TV in their room spend an average of 22 minutes more a day watching TV and videos than other children do. Those living in “heavy” TV households are more likely to watch every day (77% v. 56%), and to watch for longer when they do watch (an average of 34 minutes more a day). They are also less likely to read every day (59% v. 68%), and spend less time reading when they do read (6 minutes less a day). In fact, they are less likely than other children to be able to read at all (34% of children ages 4-6 from “heavy” TV households can read, compared to 56% of other children that age).
Are these heavy TV watching kids ones who would have been unlikely to learn to read in the pre-TV era? It seems likely that families with generally lower cognitive levels are going to be more likely to have kids who are slow to learn to read. So it is hard to tell how much of the lower reading level is a result of the TV watching and how much the higher TV watching is the result of lower cognitive ability. Surely time spent watching TV is time not spent reading and so there probably is some negative impact from the TV. But it is not clear how much of the difference in reading ability is due to heavier TV watching.
“These findings definitely raise a red flag about the impact of TV on children’s reading,” said Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “Clearly this needs to be a top priority for future research.”
Without properly controlled studies it is hard to know what is going on here. Though TV represents a big change in cognitive experiences for kids growing up as compared to previous ages. It must be doing something to the mind.
Parent’s views on educational value of media. Parents of young children appear to have a largely positive view about TV and computers. They are significantly more likely to say TV “mostly helps” children’s learning (43%) than “mostly hurts” it (27%); the overwhelming majority (72%) say computers “mostly help” children’s learning. About half of parents consider educational TV shows (58%) and videos (49%) “very important” to children’s intellectual development. They are also far more likely to say they have seen their children imitate positive behaviors from TV like sharing or helping (78%) than negative ones like hitting or kicking (36%). However, a majority of parents (59%) say their 4-6 year-old boys imitate aggressive behavior from TV (v. 35% for girls the same age).
It is understandable that parents have a more positive view of computers. But the view they have of TV is worrisome. Also, how miuch of the time spent with computers is just time playing shoot-em-up games? Probably the vast bulk of it. What does that do to the brain?
In the longer run artificially intelligent teaching computers that can act as incredibly patient companions ought to provide a clearer net benefit than current computers and television shows. But people might also choose to esacpe into electronic fantasies. Will they at least have the sense to restrict the extent of time their children spend in fantasy experiences? Some will but probably not all.
The full report is available as a downloadable PDF.