80% of children under two watch HOW much media per day?

I realize that we’re an outlier in the entire TV and media discussion because we don’t watch any TV at all. That’s right. When they’re deathly sick we might okay a video once in a blue moon, but I estimate that our three children, ages 2, 6, 9, watch less than twenty hours of TV/movies annually, and zero video or computer games.

Usually when I tell people that they gasp and act uncomfortable, immediately trotting out rather daft rationalizations for why the hour or two of daily TV their own children watch is educational, important, valuable or otherwise important. I mean, we wouldn’t want our six year old to miss an episode of American Idol, would we?

Frankly, being a no media family works really well for us. Our kids are active, sporty, creative and artistic, and always seem to find things to fill the time, whether it’s bicycling, skateboarding, playing on the swings, drawing, reading books, or finding neighborhood kids to play with. It works for us. This doesn’t mean, however, that I think it can work for all families.

With that said, it was darn interesting to read the latest statistics from the recent Kaiser Family Foundation’s research entitled The Media Family. According to that study (as reported by David Kiley in BusinessWeek)…

80% of children under the age of six watch an average of two hours of TV or other “screen media” per day.

Go read that again. Two hours per day. That’s over 700 hours a year, or in any given year, these average children spend 29 days in front of the television or computer screen. That works out to one month out of twelve eaten up by the tube. But let’s look at that a bit further, because realistically kids don’t stay up for 24 hours at a time, so let’s instead calculate that they’re awake 12 hours, and asleep 12 hours each day. Now you can see that two hours per day is really two months per year in front of those infernal devices.

But the data gets more disturbing when you think about that’s just the average amount spent in front of the TV (etc). It’s safe to conclude, therefore, that there are also plenty of kids that watch more than two hours per day, perhaps three, four or even five hours. (home from school at 1pm, then in front of the TV until dinner time. That’d be an easy four hours right there).

Four hours/day is equal to four months/year of television and computer viewing.

Maybe it’s just my bias, but what an incredible waste of their childhood. Where’s the fun? Where’s the adventure? Where’s the physical activity, for that matter?

Even within the study ,the authors couldn’t quite keep a straight face when they suggested that maybe there’s plenty of great TV on and that the two hours isn’t a problem:

“On the positive side of the ledger, research does indicate that well-designed educational programs, such as Sesame Street, can help 4- and 5-year-olds read and count and that children that age also benefit from pro-social messages on TV that teach them about kindness and sharing. On the other hand, studies have also found that exposure to television violence can increase the risk of children behaving aggressively and that media use in early childhood may be related to attentional problems later in life. And while the producers of early childhood media believe their products can help children learn even at the earliest ages, other experts worry that time spent with media may detract from time children spend interacting with their parents, engaging in physical activity, using their imaginations, or exploring the world around them.”

Uh huh. And don’t forget that even that most august [and conservative] of bodies, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no media usage at all for children under the age of two. Kaiser found that quite to the contrary, 43% of children in the 0-2 age group watch 1:02 hours of TV daily.

The AAP even says: “Family is the most important influence in a child’s life, but television is not far behind.”

Let’s reinforce the point here. A chart from the Kaiser study:

kids tv watching habits daily

Screen media in this instance encompasses TV, videos, video games and computers. Not shown in this figure is that 90% of the children 4-6 in the survey – 90% – use some sort of screen media daily. That blows my socks off.

What’s just as fascinating is that the average screen media usage time for the parents isn’t much more than for the 4-6 year old children: for children it averages 1:57, and for their parents, the average is 2:13. Oh, and 43% of kids ages 4-6 have a TV in their bedroom. Somehow I imagine that the amount of time they watch TV is underreported in this situation…

So am I saying that you shouldn’t let your children watch TV at all? No, though I will certainly support your making that decision. I am suggesting that without paying much attention we are giving over control of our children’s minds to TV channels, to advertisers, and to the programming teams who come up with such formulaic productions as Dora the Explorer and Dragon Tales.

I think about it this way: do I want to raise children that will be happy to be cogs in the machine, or do I want to raise creative thinkers who can engage and participate in life?
How about you?

15 comments on “80% of children under two watch HOW much media per day?

  1. Great post!! We have satellite at home and I just noticed a new channel for babies. It is targeted for kids 6 months to 3 years. I just think it is ridiculous!! We are not a no tv family but it is definitely restricted! Love your blog!!!

  2. Very fun article! IMO I would do my best to only have the t.v. on for movies or cinema! Better yet, who needs the t.v. Just get your kids a laptop where they can enjoy movies, music, articles, blogs, books and variety of other things. Creative thinking – Approved!

  3. I just loved it when Nielsen called us the other day… the lady on the other end asked how many TVs we have in the house. I responded, “None.” There was quite a long pause, and then she stammered, “Uh, ok, ma’am. Thank you.” I had to laugh as I hung up… I bet that response wasn’t on her script!!
    It’s great reading your blog and knowing we’re not the only ones who are “weird!”

  4. We limit our 2 young daughters tv viewing to videos and dvds that are age appropriate, educational and non-violent.
    Showing movies can be a life-saver in certain situations and we only watch on special occasions.

  5. My own “daft rationalization” for letting my older kids watch a movie DVD some afternoons is simple: total exhaustion! I have simply found no other way to get a rest from my Very Active 6 yr old, my Very Fidgety, Clingy 4 yr old, and of course there’s the three month old.(Who doesn’t watch movies yet, but does contribute to the exhaustion)
    I do work really hard to reduce their media intake. We only have broadcst TV, and no games etc. We couldn’t afford cable even if we wanted it! My kids get 1-3 completely TV free days a week, and most other days are either one movie, or a couple of PBS shows. It’s much easier to distract them in the Summer.
    I am OPEN TO SUGGESTIONS realating to how Mama can get a nap, with no access to chidcare, no family around to help, and basically zero support network. I admit it: I USE THE TV TO BABYSIT MY KIDS!

  6. First, no fair asking me to add 21 and 15 at 1 in the morning! LOL
    That said, Kate, I won’t call you daft but you do sound a bit lazy to me. I don’t have any family to help me either (albeit I only have one child but he is a handful to say the least – and right next to me in bed at 3.5 co-sleeping and he’ll probably wake soon to get a little nursing in!) Boo hoo you can’t afford cable. Grow up! Why do you need a nap by the way? Sleep at night when your kids sleep.
    To say that you use the TV to babysit your kids (and consistently – not as a last resort) is kind of sickening. But it is also extremely common… so hey, you are in the company of many many parents. I just happen to think that the majority of parents these days are pretty darn lazy.
    Which brings up this question: Why did you keep having kids if your life is so freakin’ hard and you are so strapped for money that you “couldn’t afford cable if we wanted it!”? Perhaps you should ask WHY your 4 year old is CLINGY and why your 6 year old is FIDGETY. Maybe they are BORED and want YOUR ATTENTION.
    Seeing that you posted so much information I can only wonder if it is a cry for help. You sound very defensive which usually signifies a lack of confidence in ones choices. Ask yourself if you are really giving it your all and being as good of a parent as you are able to be. If so, then great – at least your kids are loved and taken care of. TV won’t kill them, but more time with you is better than any video will ever be.

    • I think it’s quite awful that as a parent you teach your children not to judge a book by the cover and here you go judging. Maybe her husband just died and that’s why she has 3 kids because she had the support before, maybe she is a loving single mother who is caught in a tuff situation right now, maybe her 3 month old doesn’t sleep through the night and that’s why she would like a nap. You don’t know her story so no need to be a complete jerk.

  7. Hey,
    I don’t allow my children to watch tv , either. I have a 3 month old and a 17 1/2 month old. My inlaws don’t understand why I don’t allow it. I know it would be easy to sit them in front of the T.V. to get things done–but I want them by my side. They can help me clean and cook dinner, it may take longer but the lesson is well worth it and so is the memory of them helping mommy. We love to read and play and color at our house, it’s nice to know though that there are people who share my similar view point. I can’t imagine my older son sitting there in front of the tv for hours, knowing what he is capable of–playing, dancing, coloring, play reading–he should be doing all of those things.

  8. I guess the core problem is that it is so easy for parents to turn on tv and earn some time to prepare dinner or do whatever needs to be done at home. 100 years ago our grandparents would play with kids or help us with the home duties. It is not too popular those days that few generations live together. Also, kids learn mostly by imitating what parents are doing. The conclusion: let’s stop watching tv today and we will have more time to play with kids, prepare dinner, read books. This should help families find a better ways to enjoy life than watching tv.

  9. I agree with the poster that there is a problem in our media-soaked society today–in fact, there was a recent study, ( http://www.johnson.cornell.edu/faculty/profiles/Waldman/AUTISM-WALDMAN-NICHOLSON-ADILOV.pdf ) linking early tv watching to autism that has encouraged me to pare down the amount of tv that my son watches each day. Further, I am not very attracted to tv, and so I relate to the poster; my boy doesn’t watch it while I am at home. We usually play games, kick the ball outside, or whatever.
    However, I’d like to balance out this poster’s comments by pointing out some inaccuracies in the post:
    First, I think that most people will notice that it isn’t really *two months* out of the year, given that they sleep 12 hours a day. It’s still one month. That just means that the percentage is higher. I believe that a more astonishing number is that, if 1.5 hours per day is watched (I’m taking the more conservative approach since the studies say 1-2 hours), and the average child sleeps 12 hours a night (keep the math easy :)), then that is 12.5% of their waking hours! Too me, that’s a ton. I agree that a lot more could be done with that time, but let’s not over-emphasize the point with misleading hyperbole.
    Second, I was displeased with the AAP’s statement being taken out of context. Here is the full paragraph from that study, ( http://www.aap.org/family/tv1.htm ):
    “Family is the most important influence in a child’s life, but television is not far behind. Television can inform, entertain, and teach us. However, some of what TV teaches may not be the things you want your child to learn. TV programs and commercials often show violence, alcohol or drug use, and sexual content that may not be suitable for children or teens. Studies show that TV viewing may lead to more aggressive behavior and less physical activity. By knowing how television affects your children and by setting limits, you can help make your child’s TV-watching experience not only enjoyable, but healthy too.”
    Wow! What a difference! The AAP is actually saying that television (and I would say media in general) is an important and positive influence in our childrens’ lives when applied correctly. In fact, in the same article that the poster references, it states the following (for children 3 and up):
    “Limit your child’s use of TV, movies, and video and computer games to no more than 1 or 2 hours per day. Do not let your child watch TV while doing homework.”
    If these two hours are educational, wholesome, etc., then, according to the article, 1-2 hours can be *healthy*. In fact, my impression of the article is that it doesn’t condemn tv or even tv watching, but instead the material that they can and will find when tv watching is unsupervised and undirected. Condemn the message (the unwholesome, mind-numbing tv programs), and not the messenger (the tv).
    Finally, the poster’s last statement is unsupported by the remainder of her post. The poster says “I think about it this way: do I want to raise children that will be happy to be cogs in the machine, or do I want to raise creative thinkers who can engage and participate in life?” I think that this is a good question to ask; however, I don’t think that a lot of tv watching will guarantee this result. This question should be asked no matter what activity you are inviting your kids to participate in, including sports, art classes, historical trips, etc. The AAP does not presume to say that if our kids watch a lot of tv, then they will lose all creativity, desire to play sports, etc. I, for one, was a big tv watcher when I was a kid, but I also loved bike rides, playing basketball, drawing, and programming computers (what I do for a living now). I’m not sure how it adds up for other kids, but I run two businesses right now and believe that it requires a *lot* of creativity and ingenuity. Good question, but it is asked in a context that alludes to an incorrect conclusion.
    In conclusion, I *can* keep a perfectly straight face (even after reading the AAP article and the autism article) when I say that when parents watch tv with their kids, teach them to chose wholesome, uplifting, educational programs, and teach them how to glean knowledge from their tv experience (just like they would glean knowledge from school experience), then there is no problem at all with watching a couple of hours a day. Due to the demoralization of much of our nation, though, parents must be more and more careful about how to use this tool. Maybe one day all programs will be inappropriate for the edification of our kids, but I do not believe that that day is today.

  10. In response to the ongoing debate over infant videos, we would like to share some of our thoughts from the perspective of a producer. First of all, we welcome the discussion and think an ongoing debate on the topic is worthwhile. It is not our goal to operate in a vacuum without regard for the findings of experts or the opinions of our customers. As a matter of fact, when looking for feedback on our own videos, we specifically state that positive feedback is just as welcome as negative. Still, we do believe there are some common misconceptions regarding the research which should be pointed out.
    First of all, regarding the 1999 study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, no specific studies were conducted on infants’ television viewing habits and this relative dearth of support led them to make the conclusion that “until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the AAP does not recommend television for children younger than two years of age.” I think it’s worthwhile to emphasize that no distinction was made between educational programming and regular passive television viewing. Just as you would not compare “Citizen Kane” to “The Waterboy”, I think the differences should be stressed. While we’re not comparing children’s videos to Academy Award winning films, it is worth mentioning that, in the same article, the AAP elaborates that “studies show that preschool children who watch educational TV programs do better on reading and math tests than children who do not watch those programs. When used carefully, television can be a positive tool to help your child learn.”
    Perhaps a more detailed research piece was published just a few years ago in “Pediatrics” by scientists at Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center. The study explained that television in general tends to over-stimulate infants and may lead to problems associated with attention deficit. Once again, the study did not differentiate between the different “kinds” of programs that were watched. However, lead researcher, Dr. Dimitri Christakis felt that attention deficit in children was related to the unrealistically fast-paced visual images typical of most TV programming. Since the advent of the remote control, it seems programmers have grown fearful of viewers’ changing the channel which would mean lost revenues for the networks. To maintain an engaged audience, images flash from cut to cut as rapidly as a standard music video which enthusiastically caters to a generation of shorter attention spans. It seems clear how this could be incredibly detrimental to an infant that is just starting to associate images on television with real life communications. Ironically enough, the very issue that seems to be scarring the industry in which we participate, is part of our mission statement – to show content in a slow and deliberate manner.
    In general, we think it’s fair to say that anything can be damaging in extremes and the key should be more about moderation. According to a survey conducted by The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 61% of children under 1 watch TV every day and another one-third of children under 6 actually have televisions in their bedrooms. This to me is startling. We have a three year old daughter and her television viewing is quite limited and controlled. When we do allow her to watch our videos, we typically watch them together and talk about the scenes and sing along with the songs. Completely ignoring videos as a medium for learning and communication seems dogmatic.
    Still, not all videos are created equally. We were actually inspired to create our own series out of dissatisfaction with the options so popular on the market today. It is concerning that so many titles imply that merely watching their videos will make a child smarter. We think it’s more important to highlight the enjoyment and exposure to language and music that can be both fun and beneficial for the interaction between parent and child.
    In particular, some of the qualities we think are important in a video include:
    Slow paced and intentional – As an alternative to videos that seem to hypnotize children into sedation through random images, content with simple vignettes and logical imagery may prove to be more beneficial.
    Interactivity – Look for videos that include interactive guides or include content that can act as a springboard to interactivity between parent and child. An interesting study conducted out of The University of Washington showed that infants exposed to television learned language skills exponentially faster when viewed together with a caregiver who could help interpret and synthesize what was being watched.
    Simple dialog and characters with individual personalities – Research has shown that infants identify with faces which may prove to be a valuable introduction to language. Also, infants are capable of understanding human emotions and interaction. Watching recognizable scenarios with characters may assist is shaping positive social interaction.
    Reviewed by trusted experts.
    Music and singing – While we wish there was more evidence which supported the belief that merely subjecting a child to classical music will make them smarter, we personally have a passion for it. Belinda is a composer who has dedicated her life to this love. We, therefore, found it very important to expose our child to music. However, we would be skeptical of any company that claims or suggests that it will make children smarter. Still, for preverbal infants, music is a wonderful way for parents to communicate with their babies, especially by singing to them. In a study done by the University of Toronto, videotaped singing performances were shown to be quite effective for developing infants and are now even employed for therapeutic uses including regulating emotion in disabled or sick children.
    The bottom line is that it is important to use your own judgment. Make sure that the videos and programs that you choose are reflective of your own values, imagination, and interests that you hope to encourage or feel are important for your child to be exposed to. Television and video viewing is easily vilified but when used in moderation and appropriately, can be an incredibly effective medium to educate, stimulate, and entertain. We personally know that they can have a long lasting effect – we’ll always walk around singing the theme to Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be, You and Me.”

  11. I agree that in general limiting/restricting screen time is great. However, I think we also need to balance various priorities.
    We could have put our kids into a day care that did not use any television at all and had them cared for by strangers all day long.
    Instead, we chose to have our kids stay home with a parent when they are young. However, since there are not multiple parents at home (like there are multiple caregivers at a day care centre), if a parent needs a break and the child is not happy to play alone, then I don’t think a bit of TV in an otherwise busy, active day with a loving parent is the end of the world.
    I understand that some parents have to or want to use day care and I am not criticizing them. We decided it was not right for our family. But we also decided that for our own sanity when caring for our kids (and I keep saying “our” because my husband and I have taken turns being the one at home), it had to involve some TV.

  12. Regarding the coments made about tv and autism:
    We don’t have tv. We practice AP. My 2 year old nurses on demand, cosleeps etc.
    And he’s autistic.
    The TV theory is no different from the refridgerator mother theory of the 60’s. Blaming the parent is an old game. Yeah, tv time is a big hole that could be filled in so many better ways (which is why we don’t watch much of it) but to imply that it causes autism is misguided at best.
    Don’t get too sucked in by studies. Read them with a critical eye. Anyone who has been involved in the world of academe knows how easily one can massage research.

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