Study: Kids' TV, computer habits start early

Report finds pre-schoolers use media as much as play outside
Tuesday, October 28, 2003

(CNN) -- Pre-schoolers are likely to spend as much time in front of the television or computer as they are playing outside, three times longer than the time spent reading, according to a new study that looks at the media's pervasiveness even among the very young.

Children aged 6 and under spend an average of two hours a day playing video games, using computers, and watching TV and videos, about the same amount spent on outdoor activities, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports in a study released Tuesday. That amount is about three times the average 49 minutes spent reading or being read to.

"We found out that kids today are growing up absolutely immersed in electronic media in this country, starting at the youngest ages," says Kaiser's Vicky Rideout, lead author of the study. "[At] even just a few months old, they're watching TV, watching videos, using computers, playing video games."

The study found that even the youngest of children are no exception. Nearly two-thirds of kids under 2 spend a couple of hours a day in front of the screen. (The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children under 2 not watch TV at all.)

"We know this is an absolutely critical period for children's development -- for their intellectual development, their social development, their physical development," says Rideout. "But we need to make sure the media that they are using are not only not harming that development, but are actually enhancing it."

TV also affects children's reading abilities. Kids with a screen in their bedroom or who live in "heavy" households -- defined as a home where the TV is on "always" or "most of the time" -- are less likely to be able to read by age 6. The study found 34 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds from "heavy" households could read, while 56 percent of other children that age could.

But the study said despite the influx of media, reading is still a part of young children's lives. Nearly 8 in 10 will read or be read to on a typical day, on average for about 49 minutes, compared to the hours in front of TVs and computers.

Kaiser researchers based their study on a telephone survey of more than 1,000 parents of children ages 6 months through 6 years.

Among the other findings of the Kaiser study:

• More than a third of kids under 6 have a TV in their bedroom.

• About one in four have a VCR or DVD where they sleep.

• A computer is present in 7 percent of the bedrooms.

• On an average day, about a quarter of 4- to 6-year-olds spend more than an hour on a computer.

Researchers say that the findings should raise concerns on the importance of the early years on children's development, and that using TV and videos might displace more interactive and constructive time for learning.

Studies in the past have linked prolonged TV viewing to obesity in children, poor sleep patterns, and later adult violence. And as younger watchers become more prevalent, Kaiser's Rideout says that more research is needed to understand the impact of early TV viewing.

To keep any TV watching to a healthy level, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association say parents should set time limits to how much and what children can watch. They also recommend choosing programs carefully and helping kids find other options, such as learning a sport or musical instrument.

"I would suggest that parents want to probably take a look at how much time their kids are spending with media and how much time their kids are spending in other activities," Rideout says.

"[Parents should] consider if they really want to have a TV in their 3-year-old's bedroom or not ... and think about maybe turning off the TV in the home if nobody's watching it."