Tune in tomorrow

November 07, 2003

WITH ALL their recent research and advice on the importance of the first three years of life, the experts are just now plugging into a big chunk of babies' days, and the results are scary.

Turns out that kids between 6 months and 3 years spend an average of an hour and 45 minutes a day staring at the television, according to a new Kaiser Foundation report. That's more than they spend with books (37 minutes) or listening to music (1 hour, 8 minutes), and nearly as much as playing outside (1 hour, 51 minutes).

No one yet knows how or if children's development is altered by so much tube-watching, though it's easy to see that it takes time away from activities that are known to be good for them. The amount of time spent talking and interacting with parents and other children, playing, and sitting on a lap while someone reads to them all took a hit in the heavy-on-the-TV households in the survey.

Worse is the finding that only 34 percent of children ages 4 to 6 in TV-addicted households (where the TV is on most or all of the day) can read. About one-third of kids under 6 live in these heavy-TV-use households. In households watching less television, 56 percent of them can read.

The study doesn't prove a causal connection. Still, it's worth considering toning down the viewing, especially for the under-2's. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children should not watch any TV or videos until they turn 2, citing the passive nature of the activity and toddlers' slippery grasp on what is real.

Past studies have linked lengthy TV viewing to childhood obesity and sleep troubles. And while kids may not pick up their accents from TV, they do mimic behavior and social interactions; some studies link TV watching to later adult violence.

But none of these studies considered the under-3's, a group that has been increasingly targeted by those selling educational videos and computer programs. Some 32 percent of the under-2's in the study have videos from the "Baby Einstein" series, which offers music, poetry and art via video, books and puppets. The company sold some 5 million videos or DVDs last year.

And there are some toddlers who have their own computer tables and tumble-proof PCs with games and bookmarked Web sites. Ten percent of the under-3's in the study used a PC nearly every day.

Of course, kids must learn to be media-savvy. Understanding how to read television news, shows and advertising, as well as how to scan and pull information from computers and the Internet, is part of cultural literacy. But is there really such a rush?

After all, "Baby Einstein's" namesake didn't need to watch television as a child to grow into his genius.

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