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Tuning In to a Problem

Let's View the Data

At a Capitol Hill briefing for Congressional staff this summer, led by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a panel had been assembled to highlight the dearth of data on how television affects children's health. One of the speakers was Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, who helped develop the AAP's no-television policy.

"There is a great sense of unease about the effects of media on children, coupled with a great sense of hopelessness about what to do about it," Rich said at the briefing."I hear a lot of resistance from parents who say, 'How am I supposed to get dinner on the table if I can't park the kids in front of the TV?' To which I say, 'How did we survive before 1947 when we didn't have television?' "

Today, not only do we have broadcast television, we have videos and DVDs and dozens of children's cable shows that are commercial-free but nonetheless push "Blue's Clues" tableware. To be fair, many of those shows were designed for preschoolers; namely, kids 3 or 4 years old, not 1 and 2. Producers say their goal is to help children learn new words and how to express themselves -- benefits that have been borne out by oft-cited research on the impact of "Sesame Street" when watched by children over 2.

Sure, on good days, I can practice the pre-1947 trick of assembling my children on the kitchen floor to pound pots and pans while I chop the tomatoes. But what about those weak-willed mornings, when my eyes are crusty and my head aches for sleep, when I'm trying to nurse the baby while keeping Janelle from pulling her sister's legs out of their sockets? That's when the Disney Channel is a gift from God -- no matter that it might be meant for children a year older than Janelle.

Then there are the videos designed specifically for infants and toddlers. "Baby Einstein," started in 1997 by a mother and former teacher named Julie Clark, is now owned by Disney, which is about to publish its 16th title and has sold more than 10 million copies in the United States. In August, Nickelodeon entered the pre-preschool market, too, with a line of videos called "Curious Buddies" for its Nick Jr. Baby division.

Producers of baby videos say their products are not supposed to be substitutes for interaction. Instead, they are designed to encourage parents to watch with their children, pointing, talking and singing along. With these products, said Russell Hampton, general manager of "Baby Einstein," you can have an "engaging, playful experience with your infant."

Laura E. Wendt, senior vice president of research and planning for Nickelodeon Networks, said the "Curious Buddies" videos show children playing games that may inspire interaction. "When the TV is off," she said, she hopes that parents "will take some ideas and play with their children in these ways."

While I plead guilty to having viewed "Baby Einstein" videos with Janelle on cold, housebound mornings, I know that most parents would not choose to spend any of the hard-won time they do have with their babies in front of the television set?

Like Life, but Different

Even if most people would agree that a large diet of television is no good, could an hour and a half a day, the average amount reported by families in the Kaiser study, actually do harm? Couldn't infants or toddlers learn from a few hours in front of the TV, the same way they learn from real life?

Not quite. At least not according to researchers who have studied an effect called "the video deficit" -- the finding that video screens do not promote as much learning as does face-to-face interaction.

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