Children in home-based day-care watching more TV, study says

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Children who attend home-based day-care programs are watching twice as much television per day as was previously thought, according to a study released online Monday and published in the December issue of Pediatrics.

In a survey of 168 child-care programs in four states, researchers found that toddlers, ages 1 to 3, in home-based day-care centers watched an average of 1.6 hours of television there each day, including videos and DVDs. Preschool-age children, 3 to 5 years old, watched 2.4 hours a day in home-based centers.

Prior studies have estimated that preschool-age children watch one to three hours of television a day. But those relied on reports from parents about children's habits at home and did not count the time they spent in front of the television during day care, underestimating the total TV time by up to 100 percent, researchers said.

"I hope that this is a wake-up call," said Dimitri Christakis of the Seattle Children's Research Institute, the study's lead author. "President Obama famously asked parents to turn off their children's television sets, and you might ask day-care providers to do the same thing, since watching television is not part of what early-childhood education should be."

Studies have linked television-watching in young children to obesity, aggression, cognitive delays and decreased attention spans. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages television-watching for children under 2 and recommends that older children watch no more than two hours of television a day.

The research, funded by a University of Washington endowment and the first in 20 years to examine television-watching in day care, suggests wide variations among programs. Children in center-based programs, which are not in homes, spent 1.8 fewer hours in front of a screen than their peers in home-based programs, the study said. And home-based programs whose staff members had either a two- or four-year college degree were associated with 1.4 fewer hours of television a day than home-based programs whose staff lacked college degrees.

Center-based day-care programs might rely less on television than home-based providers because they generally have lower child-to-adult ratios, Christakis said, and their employees tend to be more highly educated.

Christakis urged parents to cut down on screen time at home and to ask prospective day-care providers about television use.

In Maryland, parents can use a free counseling service to help find and choose a licensed child-care provider. But rarely do they ask about television, said Jennifer Williams of the Maryland Family Network, which runs the Locate: Child Care service.

"Parents have so many other urgent questions that it really doesn't come up," she said.

In Virginia, licensed home-based day-care programs are required to use television "with discretion and not as a substitute for planned activities," according to state regulations. Of the more than 3,500 inspections this year, only 10 have yielded citations for noncompliance with the rule.

"When you walk in and see 'Judge Judy,' we would consider that noncompliant," said Debbie Beirne, a children's health and safety consultant with the Virginia Department of Social Services. "If it were on showing 'Sesame Street,' and the children were watching and engaged in it, that would be appropriate."

Christakis said states should consider tightening licensing requirements. No matter how educational the program, he said, television-watching displaces components of high-quality child care, including outdoor playtime and opportunities to interact with peers and teachers.

" 'Sesame Street' is a good show, and there are other good shows," Christakis said. "But 'Sesame Street' was never intended to replace human interaction."

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