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Younger Kids See More TV, But Debate Rages on Effects

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The Kaiser Family Foundation released a study Tuesday reporting that children ages 6 and younger are increasingly becoming media-savvy, spending an average of two hours a day watching TV, playing video games and/or tinkering on computers - all coming at the expense of their ability to read.

The study found that overall, 36 percent of those 6 and younger have TVs in their bedroom, and 27 percent additionally have a VCR or DVD player. Twenty-six percent of children 2 and younger have a TV in their bedroom. The number of those 3 and younger with TVs rises to 30 percent. Forty-three percent of those ages 4 to 6 have TVs.

Children in households in which the television is on always'' ormost of the time'' are less likely to be able to read. Kaiser announced that 34 percent of kids ages 4 to 6 from such households can read. In homes where TV use is reduced, 56 percent of children in that age group can read.

Children from ``heavy''-use TV households, moreover, are more likely to watch every day (77 percent vs. 56 percent) and will watch for longer periods (an average of 34 minutes more a day). Youths with TVs in their room spend 22 more minutes a day in front of the set.

In general, children ages 6 months to 6 years are spending about two hours a day in front of a media screen, be it a TV, computer or video game, roughly the same amount of time they spend playing outdoors and far more than the average of 39 minutes they spend reading or being read to.

Two-thirds of these children live in homes where the TV is on ``half'' the time, and one-third live in homes in which the TV is nearly always on. Those with a TV in their room spend an average of 22 minutes more a day watching TV and videos than other children do. They are also less likely to read every day, and spend less time reading when they do read (6 minutes less a day).

Robert Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, was appalled by some of the findings.

``For children this young to have TVs in their room before their skulls have fully fused, that's a disturbing number,'' he said.

Thompson added, ``No kid under 12 should have a TV in his room. You really do have to be able to monitor your kids' cultural intake. If you've got cable or a satellite hookup, you have to treat TV like the liquor cabinet. The only TV kids should have access to should be in a public space in the home.''

A Kaiser Family Foundation spokeswoman, however, admitted the study did not determine what children were doing with their screen time - whether or not they watched educational programming or used educational computer programs was not monitored.

Then the study is disingenuous,'' suggested Dallas Observer pop-culture critic Robert Wilonsky.It's OK to send kids to class in school where they watch a video. But if they're home watching TV, they're fat, out-of-shape mush-heads learning nothing. Studies like this are meant to imply that kids are watching trashy material. It doesn't take into account what they're using TV for.''

Wilonsky also cited the late Neil Postman's study, Amusing Ourselves to Death,'' which recalled thatSesame Street'' was initially assailed for merely addicting children to television at a younger age, rather than being championed for teaching them how to read. Television is damned for being television,'' he concluded.It's a no-win proposition.''

Amy Goldman Koss, a Glendale author of children's books, including the best seller The Girls,'' agreed. '' 'Sesame Street' is better for kids than playing outside and better than reading most of the crap that's out there,'' she said, adding that the absence of television cannot be implied to be a panacea:I don't have a TV in my house, and my 11-year-old son doesn't read anything except ``Captain Underpants,'' and that's not enough for a kid to read.''

Syracuse's Thompson added, ``Clearly, if you're watching TV, you're spending less time acquiring other skills. But the cause and effect implied by this study requires examination. In a family with low-screen TV use, people may be teaching their kids to read and doing other proactive things to improve their children.

``The thing that bugs me is this sense that TV watching is, in itself, a judgable thing that has nothing to do with what is being watched. The implication is that the very act of looking at a screen is antithetical to literacy skills. A lot of reading is done on screen. Some screen time is not antithetical to reading - it is, in fact, reading, and that's a crucial thing. A lot of kids learn to read through computer software and 'Sesame Street.' When we're told the more time a child spends before a screen, the less one can read, there's a lot of truth that that statement doesn't let us get to.''

Indeed, more parents questioned in the study believe that TV mostly helps'' children's learning (43 percent) than believe TVmostly hurts'' it (27 percent). An overwhelming majority (72 percent) say computers ``mostly help'' children's learning.

About half of parents consider educational TV shows (58 percent) and videos (49 percent) ``very important'' to children's intellectual development. They are also far more likely to say they have seen their children imitate positive behaviors from TV, such as sharing or helping (78 percent) than negative ones such as hitting or kicking (36 percent).

However, a majority of parents (59 percent) say their 4- to 6-year-old boys imitate aggressive behavior from TV vs. 35 percent for girls the same age.


(The Los Angeles Daily News web site is at

c.2003 Los Angeles Daily News

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