Saturday morning cartoons are no longer the singular domain of children's television. Televisions are popping up in the back of cars, and the even-smaller screen of portable media players allow kids to play videos and watch DVDs virtually anywhere.
Entire cable channels are aimed at children who barely eat solid foods, but not everyone agrees that the boob tube is the best place for young children to gain an education.
A 2006 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in spite of the continued debate over the possible harmful effects of television on young children, many parents still believe that the benefits of watching television outweigh the risks.
The researchers studied children ages 6 months to 6 years old, and found that 61 percent of babies younger than one-year-old watched TV or videos for more than an hour each day. One-third of all children in the study had a TV in their bedroom.
Over half of the parents surveyed said the main reason for putting a TV in their child's room was so that they or other family members could watch their own television programs.
However, the study also revealed that television is not totally replacing other activities. Eighty-three percent of the children in the study read or are read to each day, the same percentage as those who watch TV, videos or DVDs.
Although this is good news, the children who are read or are being read to are only engaging in this activity for about half of the time as those children who spend time in front of a screen.
Even if television remains prevalent in most American households, not everyone is in favor of extended viewing time for young kids. The Center For Screen-Time Awareness is sponsoring its annual TV-Turnoff Week, April 23rd through the 29th.
This non-profit organization believes that, "television cuts into family time, harms our children's ability to read and succeed in school, and contributes to unhealthy lifestyles and obesity."
According to the group's web site (www.tvturnoff.org), TV-Turnoff Week is supported by over 70 national organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Academy has itself been very vocal about the impact of all types of media on the social, physical, and mental health of infants, children, and teenagers.
Dr. Dan Shifrin, chair of the communications committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, commented that, "from a very young age, media in all of its forms has as much, if not more influence on children than their parents do."
He added that it is the Academy's considered opinion that youngsters under the age of two who are pre-verbal don't need television. While it is true that children at this stage of development imitate the visual cues they see on the two-dimensional screen and learn letters and numbers from watching television, they actually learn more from the three-dimensional relationship with their parents.
In 1999, the Academy issued a policy statement titled Media Education that discussed how the media manipulates older children. In that discourse, the Academy also made reference to the Teletubbies, a BBC children's television series aimed at babies and preschool children, which made its debut in 1997.
The organization felt Teletubbies was a classic example of exploitive programmg aimed at young children. It recommended that parents discourage and avoid television viewing for young children under the age of two because it was an economic medium, not a teaching medium.
Teletubbies merchandise was promoted and sold by national retailers like Toys "R" Us, Wal-Mart and Target. As Dr. Shifrin pointed out, the Academy is well aware that parents continue to believe that television is good for their young children's development.
Children do orient to the pictures presented on the screen, but there has been no definitive research that proves they are learning from the process. In fact, with children under the age of two, television viewing is a displacement actvity replacing listening to music or being read to by parents.
If parents want to continue to allow their children under the age of two to view television, the Academy recommends the following guidelines:
"Parents need to be aware of the power of the box. It can be extremely powerful," Shifrin added.
That power can be used for good according to BabyFirstTV (www.babyfirsttv.com), the first U.S. cable and satellite channel dedicated to providing programming designed to be a catalyst for baby's learning. The channel boasts interactive programming that is 80 percent original content created by leading experts in child development, education and psychology; as well as video-on-demand capabilities.
BabyFirstTV describes itself as an "interactive tool for parents to engage their infants and toddlers ranging from 6 months to 3 years." The program content focuses on the development of language, math and sensory skills, creative play and muscle development.
Another popular proponent of the educational television for small children philosophy is Baby Einstein (www.babyeinstein.com). Capitalizing on the knowledge that babies are naturally curious, Baby Einstein designs its products to encourage discovery and help parents find new ways to interact with their babies.
The company describes its product line as being created from a baby's point-of-view and incorporating a combination of music, art, language, science, poetry, and nature.
Baby Einstein is acutely aware of the controversy surrounding the use of television for cognitive development, and they are not afraid to get into the fray. The following excerpt is taken from their web site:
"The Baby Einstein Company is aware of the ongoing discussions regarding children and television viewing, particularly as it pertains to infants under the age of two years old. And, while we respect the American Academy of Pediatrics, we do not believe that their recommendation of no television for children under the age of two reflects the reality of today's parents, families and households – for example, a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 68 percent of all babies under two years old watch screen media on any given day. The Baby Einstein Company believes that when used properly, developmentally-appropriate video content can be a useful tool for parents and little ones to enjoy together."
As a parent of a child under two, you may be experiencing guilt pangs if you are allowing your child screen time. There's no reason to feel conflicted if you keep in mind two simple guidelines:
FOXNews.com health writer Maria Esposito contributed to this report.
For more great information on living healthy through every decade of life, click here to check out Dr. Manny's book The Check List (Harper Collins, 2007).
Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.
Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.