That could have been the subtitle for the briefing and panel discussion convened by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the release of their latest report The Media Family: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, Preschoolers and Their Parents [news release, full report]. This national survey, supplemented with focus groups, of parents with children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years documented the extent of young children’s exposure to screen media (TV, videos/DVDs, video games or computers) and offered a panoramic view of how media fits into the everyday lives of these children and their parents. The results come after 15 years of expanding commercial interest in programming for the youngest viewing audience traced by one panel member to the success of “Barney.” The profits from the character’s licensing fees, along with an increasing awareness of the importance of the first years of life in brain development, was the impetus for the development and promotion of various products, especially videos and CDs, to ostensibly improve intellectual development and other types of cognitive skills. [See the review of evidence for educational claims by commercial media products and the site for ‘the nation’s first channel for babies’ for a quick orientation as to where we are today.] However, as became clear during the panel discussion, there are only a few studies that give us any insight into how media exposure and use is affecting (positively or negatively) children’s cognitive, emotional and social development. And a review of the literature concluded: there is very little evidence to suggest that children younger than 2 learn anything useful from television.
The position of the child programmers and network executives was, in their own words, ‘the train has left the station’ and people need to understand that children’s exposure to screen media was not going to go away. So the best thing to do is develop content that is educational and, they repeatedly emphasized, stimulates interaction between the parent and the child – though in the next breath they admitted that very few parents actually did this (2/3’s of the survey respondents reported that they watched TV with their child ‘all’ or ‘most’ of the time - interacting with them is another question). The physician on the panel was the champion for ‘live’ interactions between parents and children and while not recommending zero tolerance for screen viewing (except for infants < 1 year old), was much more cautious in his appraisal of the unknown and possibly untoward effects of screen viewing behaviors [see the current recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics].
The backdrop for much of this interest in early childhood exposure to screens is the recognition that the years 0-5 are crucial for brain development. This massive, uncontrolled social experiment of using screen media to help parents manage their schedules, keep the peace and provide a backdrop for other activities of daily life such as eating and falling asleep, is taking place in a society where very few public research dollars are devoted to investigating the effects of this ubiquitous social influence on the early development of values, knowledge, language skills, cognitive and social skills and behaviors. A review of the research by ZERO TO THREE found no research on the impact of TV viewing on early childhood development and some studies that have noted an increase in the potential for negative effects as viewing time increases. That the assumed positive effects of exposure to content teaching academic subjects has had very little support only magnifies the finding noted by the PBS representative that parents place even more value on content that involves social-emotional learning and teaches values when choosing programs and other content for their child to watch.
For social marketing and education programs aimed at very young children and their parents, these results and the ensuing discussions have raised my awareness that simply ‘buying into’ using screens as part of an intervention is not an excuse to ignore the possible negative consequences of our actions. We need to learn how to use media in new ways and not simply fall into the traditional, and unsupported, ways of doing things.