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Every day, 2-year-old Marion Hall-Zazueta wakes up thinking about one thing: a video featuring Maisy, a lovable animated mouse.
''It's the first thing she asks for in the morning,'' says her mom, Ilen Zazueta-Hall of Sebastopol, Calif. ''We have to convince her to do other things.''
Usually, Marion watches about a half-hour of Maisy a day, but some days a half-hour turns into 1 1/2 hours.
Does that make Marion a mini couch potato, prone to the same types of problems, such as laziness and obesity, as adult couch potatoes? Probably not -- as long as the viewing is moderate, experts say.
But the truth is, says Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas-Austin, ''We don't know the long-term consequences of such early media use, particularly electronic media use, on children's development .''
Wartella co-wrote a study in late October by the Kaiser Family Foundation that surprised even those who have hypothesized that babies and children are exposed to more media than ever before, including TV, computers, DVDs, videos and video games.
The study found that 68% of Americans 2 and younger spend an average of two hours a day in front of a screen. And children under 6 spend as much time in front of electronic media as they do playing outside.
Other studies of children have linked TV with obesity and lower reading levels.
Studies vary on effects of PC use. One recent study showed that children ages 4 to 13 who used computers up to eight hours a week had slightly improved reading levels. But when use topped eight hours a week, reading levels were the same as for kids who had no computer use, says Paul Attewell, sociology professor at City University of New York.
In addition, the kids spending more time on PCs were heavier than kids who spent little or no time on the computer.
It may be that larger, non-athletic kids are choosing to stay on the computer rather than playing outside, Attewell says. The cause and effect are not clear, but the study shows PC use can be beneficial in moderation and detrimental in excess, he says.
Moderation -- and common sense -- are key when figuring out how much TV and computer use to allow kids, says Daniel Anderson, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Parents still should monitor what their kids watch and do their best to keep it to a minimum.
But some, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that kids 2 and younger avoid TV and other screen media altogether.
That is partly why the recent Kaiser study alarmed so many in the field. Though many studies have focused on habits of children, the Kaiser study is considered landmark because it looks into viewing habits of infants and toddlers, which has not been comprehensively studied before.
Preliminary numbers from the Kaiser study indicate there may be a correlation in very young kids between heavy TV watching and lower reading levels.
Kids in homes where the TV is on nearly all the time -- not necessarily being watched -- tend to read less than others: 34% of 4- to 6-year-olds in heavy-TV homes can read, compared with 56% of those in homes that watch less TV.
The numbers should be a ''wake-up call that we better do some studies to find out the impact of such early screen viewing,'' Wartella says. ''It's not just a few kids who are doing this. It's a lot.''
Marion's father, Craig Hall, says he and his wife always have been careful about what their kids can view. They generally allow them to watch only videos and DVDs.
His opinion on background TV changed when he and his wife were watching The Godfather five years ago. Their older daughter, Fiona, was only about 5 months old at the time and wasn't even watching. But she was in the room when an extremely violent scene was shown, and she became ''inconsolable.''
''We said, 'This is clearly having a negative effect,' '' Hall says.
Though experts can't say what the long-term consequences are of early media saturation, they can say that kids are affected, positively and negatively, by what they see on television, on the computer or anywhere else.
They tend to imitate characters they see on TV or video games, so parents need to be mindful about exposure to negative characters.
''Given that kids are watching TV a lot, it's critical that we continue as a society to develop more programming that is really aiming to support their development,'' says Stacey Matthias of Insight Research Group, a market research firm that has studied children and the media. ''When kids are watching television that is appropriate to their age, it is used to enforce skills and knowledge that they're working on in the rest of their lives.''
But kids model themselves on TV, regardless of the content. ''They are like sponges.''
Like most parents, Melissa Alvarez, the mother of a 14-month-old, is doing her best to walk that tightrope. But it's not always easy.
Alvarez, of Castro Valley, Calif., observed the effect of TV on kids as an au pair putting herself through college. She noticed that kids who watched a lot of TV tended to ''have a lot more undirected, crazy energy.''
So she restricts her child's access, which includes encouraging her husband to keep the TV off.
''Sometimes it's a necessary evil. We all know what it feels like to come home and flip on our favorite TV show and just veg for an hour. It feels really good, and so it's really easy to do that for children,'' she says. ''Unfortunately, easy isn't always the best way to go.''
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