The more Americans live the fast-paced, overworked life, the more their young children are over-entertained. It isn't that parents intend to introduce their children to the world by having them gaping blank-faced into a television screen. But when there's work to be done, or just noise to be muffled, parents can see the benefits of young children glued to the TV, quiet and still.
At least that's how I would defend myself, if challenged to explain why my children watch more television than they should. In the final analysis, however, this exercise in parental laxity is not only indefensible, it's now out of control.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has just released a new study showing just how much electronic media has become a central focus in the lives of many of our youngest children. It conducted a telephone survey of more than 1,000 parents in four large cities with children between six months to six years old, and what the foundation learned is alarming.
To put it mildly, our dependency on what Kaiser calls "screen media" is strong, and our resistance to over-entertaining our children is weak. In a typical day, 83 percent of children under the age of six use "screen media," averaging about two hours a day. But it's even more surprising that the parents surveyed report that 61 percent of babies one year and younger are put in front of a glowing screen for an average of 80 minutes per day.
It gets worse.
Many parents have created homes where the TV is a nearly constant presence, all around the house. Almost half the children (43 percent) aged 4 to 6 have a TV in their bedroom. Even more shocking, there's an idiot box in 19 percent of the rooms with babies one year or younger.
Why do they do this? It's not surprising that the most common reasons parents give for putting a TV in their child's bedroom is to free up other TVs in the house so the parent or other family members can watch their own favorite shows (55 percent) or to keep the child occupied so the parent can do things around the house (39 percent). But in this environment, it's hard to see how parents really can monitor what exactly their very young children are watching, and they don't.
One mother surveyed in Denver decided she needed to be more vigilant after she found her son quoting a movie on the Sci-Fi channel. You could tell it was a cheesy horror movie just from the title: "Mansquito." On the other hand, some allow their tots to join them in front of adult programming. A mother in California watches "CSI," replete with some of the most savage violence and grotesque imagery ever shown over the broadcast airwaves, with her daughter in the one-to-three age range. "I don't know how harmful it is to her. It's something gory, but it doesn't seem to bother her. She hasn't had any nightmares from it," she claimed.
We live in the age of the television-drenched child. A third of children under six in the survey live in homes where the TV is on all (13 percent) or most (19 percent) of the time. One mother in Columbus, Ohio said their family had five television sets, and "at least three of those are usually on." Turning on the TV is a way to say "good morning," and 30 percent of parents surveyed say they put a TV in their child's bedroom so it's the last thing to talk at their children as they go to sleep.
Many parents suggest the trend isn't so problematic if the TV program is healthy or educational. After all, "The Wiggles" is a lot more friendly to toddlers than "CSI." But at some point, parents ought to wonder if swallowing six boxes of granola in one sitting is still healthy eating.
Regardless of what self-interested TV titans tell parents, there is no V-chip or any other artificial, technological solution to keep your children's television intake safe and reasonable.
The solution is human, not technological. It's parental engagement.
Several years ago, on one of those televised weekend chatter-talk shows, host Robert Beckel was leading a discussion on this very topic, and concluded the segment by challenging his panelists to recommend their favorite programs for children. One cited a sporting venue, two others named their preferred entertainment shows. The final answer came from ever-prescient columnist Mona Charen, who delivered one of the best one-liners I've ever heard. "I'd have them read Thucydides in the original Greek." But I wonder how many children have books in their bedrooms.