Tuning In to a Problem
A Worried Mom Pursues the Facts About What TV Does to Its Youngest Viewers

By Lisa Guernsey
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 9, 2004

In April, a study appeared in the journal Pediatrics that gave new parents another reason to lose sleep: Evidence had emerged that children who had watched a lot of television as toddlers were having attention problems at age 7.

While I read the study, my 3-month-old daughter Gillian was strapped into her bouncy chair, which happened to be facing the TV. The set was turned on for my 26-month-old daughter, Janelle, who had taken a liking to "Playhouse Disney."

New data on TV use among the very young had made news a few months earlier. Nearly 60 percent of children under 2 watch television in a typical day; 43 percent watch every day, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported. Twenty-six percent of children in that age group have a television in their bedroom.

The numbers were eye-opening (television in a baby's bedroom?), but I had never felt concerned about our household. My husband and I watch a several hours a week of news, Comedy Central and the Food Network. But we can go days without turning on the tube. My older daughter loves playing outside and she almost always picked Play-Doh over videos. The baby barely seemed to notice the screen, except to sometimes turn her head at the sound of music or be lulled to sleep by it.

But the Pediatrics article -- which is still a hot topic debated at playgrounds around the country -- made me worry about my "why worry?" philosophy. The study analyzed data from more than 1,000 children who had taken part in a national survey that spanned many years. It showed that for each hour of television that toddlers watched daily, their risk of having attention problems was increased by almost 10 percent. Put another way, a child who watched two hours of TV per day before age 3 would be 20 percent more likely to have attention problems at age 7 than a child who watched none.

By the time I had finished reading, the bouncy chair was facing the other direction.

True, the study used data from the 1980s and early 1990s, before there was nearly as much baby-tailored TV available as there is today. And it relied on parents' reports of their children's behavior. The biggest caveat was that the authors could not prove that the problems were caused by television. In fact, maybe children destined to have attention problems were more likely to be plunked in front of the television to calm them down.

That was an escape hatch, but I was still anxious. What was I doing to my children by exposing them to TV before their brains were fully developed? Could the mind really be miswired by watching too much of "The Wiggles"? How was "Baby Einstein" -- a video series jokingly called "Baby Crack" -- different from gazing at a musical mobile moving above a crib?

Over the next several months, I discovered pockets of new research -- including some unexpected conclusions about the risks of "Sesame Street" when viewed by very young children -- that have led my husband and me to pay more attention to what our daughters watch and how long they watch it. Studies on the distraction of background television have even changed our own viewing habits.

But like the majority of our parenting friends, we continue to feel ambivalent. Dimitri Christakis, the lead author of the Pediatrics study, calls television "the elephant in the American family room," and he's right. But we grew up on television. And although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no TV for kids under 2, there are times when we just have to turn it on.

"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?

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.

A series of studies, for example, shows that when 6- to 24-month-olds watched a video repeatedly showing a person removing a mitten from a mouse puppet, the children could not replicate the action on their own. But when same-aged children watched a live person do the same thing, they figured it out.

In similar experiments, children viewing the video eventually learned to remove the mitten; they just required more repetition before they could do it.

"There is less learning from a video display as compared with an equivalent live display," write Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek in an article for a special issue of American Behavioral Scientist, due to be published next month. Their paper recounts multiple studies that show similar delays in learning.

I visited Rachel Barr, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, who led the puppet study. She focuses on how memory is formed, and attributes the difference to two-dimensional vs. 3-D displays. A 2-D screen, by its nature, can never provide the same quality of visual cues to the brain.

But Barr is also the mother of a 8-month-old boy, and she readily acknowledges the struggles faced by parents who want to give their children the richest interactions possible yet cannot spend every minute focused on them.

"I don't think you are going to get 100 percent reversal with parents just turning the TV off," Barr said.

Her strategy is to improve television's content instead, so that what children are seeing onscreen has a connection to and reinforces what they experience in real life. "If we work on this problem, kids could benefit," she said.

Indeed, she works for Nickelodeon as a consultant on its Nick Jr. Baby series.

Could it be that "Sesame Street" -- the gold standard of educational television -- actually retards a child's language development?

That's a possibility, Linebarger said, though she issued a few words of caution. First, the study included only 51 children from mostly middle- to upper-class families. Second, the data were collected from the fall of 1999 to 2001, before "Sesame Street" decided to keep story lines together instead of jumping in and out of them throughout the program. (Incidentally, Rosemary Truglio, vice president for education and research at Sesame Street, said that the format was changed because the average age of the show's viewers was getting younger. In the early days, as a kindergarten-readiness program, Sesame Street targeted 4 year olds. Today, she said, the target audience is 2 to 4 years old.)

The study also hints at some positive aspects of TV. Some programs seemed to help children learn to use language. Linebarger's research shows that 30-month-old children who watched shows with strong linear story lines, like the relatively new "Dora the Explorer" and "Blue's Clues," had stronger vocabularies and used more-expressive language than their peers who didn't watch those programs.

Although I could take consolation in the fact that Janelle had started to choose Dora over Dorothy (the dinosaur in "The Wiggles"), I was no longer so naïve to believe that simply because a show appears on a children's channel means it is harmless. It seemed worth avoiding exposure to "Teletubbies."

But it was my conversation with Anderson that led me to reconsider our entire family's viewing habits. Background television could be doing harm, he said.

He first considered its impact more than 10 years ago, when he was working from home and caring for his year-old daughter. The Branch Davidians standoff in Waco, Texas, was erupting, and he had been watching CNN all day. "She was just playing in front of the TV," he said of his daughter, "and it just occurred to me: I wonder if this is having any effect on her?"

Since then, he has observed how children play when the TV is on and when it's not. Around two years of age, children start to talk out loud about what they are doing, often in words that adults cannot understand. Those conversations, Anderson and others surmise, are the nascent forms of the voice that older children and adults hear in their heads as they plan their next steps. He has documented that even if toddlers seem oblivious to the sounds and images of a video screen, their conversations are halted and the play time with toys is shortened when the TV is on.

"Background adult television is really quite disruptive to the organization of toddlers' toy play and quite disruptive to parent's interaction," he said.

Suffice it to say that parenting perfection has not yet arrived at our house. But we are making changes. Janelle, now 2 1/2, is allowed no more than an hour of television a day, and we try to make sure her younger sister is napping or playing in another room when she watches it.

To avoid the "I want to watch TV!" tantrums -- yes, we are now blessed with such things -- we are consistently enforcing new rules, like no television before getting dressed and having breakfast.

We prefer videos over television, since they usually have stronger story lines and give us discipline when we lack it. (Namely, they come to an end.) Meanwhile, my husband and I avoid most grown-up programs until the kids have gone to bed.

Indeed, as long as the limits are enforced, we seem to be in a sweet spot. At 8 months, the baby is not yet attracted to TV and Janelle is now old enough to benefit from a few shows. But it won't be long before the baby will become an 18-month-old pining for Elmo.

And until more research clears up the questions about the attention-deficit study, I know that some days, when circumstances seem to scream for it, I won't be able to keep myself from reaching for that Sesame Street Sing-a-Long video.

But I will also buy some more Play-Doh."

Lisa Guernsey has written for the New York Times, Consumer Reports, the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications.

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