A new study released this week from the Kaiser Family Foundation, based on telephone interviews with more than 1000 parents of 2-6 year olds, raises new concerns about the amount of time even the youngest American children spend consuming media. Among the findings: Nearly half (48%) of kids six and under have used a computer. Almost a third (30%) have played computer games. Children under six spend about the same amount of time each day consuming media (1:58) and playing outside (2:01); that’s dramatically more than the amount of time they spend in the company of books (:39). Nearly half (45%) of all parents of kids this age say that they are very or somewhat likely to use television as a babysitter. (The Kaiser folks can’t say it but I will: the rest were lying.) 48 percent of those under 2 watch television every day: no wonder the Teletubbies have such high ratings.
What do we make of these figures? On the one hand, they are probably lower than many of us feared. Who would have imagined that the average child still spent two hours a day playing the backyard, when so many children have no access to real world play space. I’ve certainly seen people claim much higher figures for the amount of time the average child spent consuming media – and remember that number is split between so-called passive and interactive media. And realize that at least some of the time kids are online are spent both reading and writing, suggesting a shift in where we acquire literacy skills rather than necessarily the sharp decline of literacy some will read from this study. The fact that the highest consumers of media also do worse in school may be read as a symptom of a larger problem rather than a cause: are kids who consume that much media getting adequate supervision from their parents? Are they more likely to come from homes with more than one working parent? Are they more likely to come from low income households?
One interesting set of figures from the study shows that more parents believe that television viewing “mostly helps” their children’s educational development (43%) than believe that it “mostly hurts” (27%) and an even higher portion believe that computers “mostly help” ( 72%) their children. The bias of the researchers implies that these parents are wrong. I would suggest that it very much depends on how television and computer use get woven into other kinds of family activities. These high numbers also reflect a concentrated effort over the past few decades to increase the pedagogical content of even commercial children’s television. There is lots of junk out there, but children’s television is not nearly as junky as it used to be.
Yet, the spread of heavy media consumption to younger and younger ages is a cause of concern. As someone who thinks that media gets wrongly blamed for a lot of social ills, I still become worried when it starts to shortchange other kinds of valuable social and cultural activities that should be part of a well-rounded lifestyle. The heavy reliance on media as a babysitter means that parents are probably not taking seriously their responsibility to monitor the kinds of media their children consume. The study did find that 90% of parents have rules about what their kids watch and 69% have rules about how much they watch. But a rule-driven structure is not sufficient, even if you believe it is necessary. The key, I believe, is talking with your kids about the media they consume. Without that, you lose the ability to communicate the difference between the values expressed on television and your own family values. Without that communication, prohibitions will break down as the kid gets older, visits other kids at home, and develops their own access to media beyond the family. Media literacy begins at home, people, and the time which parents spend with their kids reading, writing stories, playing, and talking is the time through which we help our children to process the other inputs in their lives.
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