By Lauren Young
The American Academy of Pediatrics  says that children under two should steer clear of the boob tube. But, a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation  on families and their television viewing habits found that plenty of parents happily use TV as a babysitter. “Electronic media is a central focus of many very young children’s lives, used by parents to help manage busy schedules, keep the peace, and facilitate family routines such as eating, relaxing, and falling asleep,” the study says.
Since television has been a hot topic on the BusinessWeek working parents blog and other parenting blogs, I wanted to talk to an expert about the findings. I caught up with Deborah Linebarger , an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications in Philadelphia. She’s one of a handful of researchers who track kids and their TV viewing habits. I felt like a better mom after our conversation. “We need to stop parents from thinking that they are bad parents and they are damaging their child by letting them watch TV,” Linebarger says. “It’s okay to use TV like other tools to meet a specific need.”
Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:
Q. Were you surprised at how frank so many of the parents surveyed were about the use of TV in their homes?
A. If you don’t use TV as a babysitter, you don’t have kids, or you are lying.
Q. Why is okay to let our kids watch TV?
A. It’s okay because a number of studies show that TV has positive effects. Let me make the important distinction that there’s a body of research that deals with children who are two and over and those that are two and under. For those who are over two, there is a huge amount of research about the positive benefits of educational media, including predicting school readiness, building vocabulary, and other kinds of developmental skills. And those benefits extend into high school. Kids who watched “Sesame Street” as a preschooler have higher grade point averages when they get to high school. For children under two, we only have a handful of studies. It’s pretty limited, although they are just starting to emerge. So far, it’s a mixed bag, and it really depends upon the content of programming and the way programs are assembled. How a program is designed, including the cuts, zooming and editing can impact its educational value. Those are things we don’t think about that as adults. We see the outside of a log cabin, and in the next scene, we are inside somewhere so we make the connection that we are inside a log cabin. A baby can’t make that connection because they don’t have that much background. What’s also important is how story lines are developed. Certain studies have shown that kids six to 30 months who watch “Teletubbies” have lower vocabulary scores and expressive language. But shows with simple story lines that look like actual storybooks, such as “Arthur” or “Clifford,” are associated with higher vocabulary and better use of language.
Q. I’m part of the "Sesame Street" generation. I heard rumors that Sesame is being blamed for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) because the storyline jumped around so much, and we watched so many short segments.
A. That study has been debunked. There’s no evidence that the fast pacing is a problem for kids over two. I really like "Sesame Street" and its model. They have a research team, and everything they do is tested before it goes on air. The original programming was developed for kids who are four and five, but that’s not primarily who watches it now. We grew up with "Sesame Street." We trust it. We take our kids there. And, low and behold, it’s not always appropriate for them. Now "Sesame Street" has been redesigned, and now the audience is skewing younger. It’s changed quite a bit.
Q. That explains where Elmo came from!
A. Yes, by the time kids are in preschool, they’ve moved on to "Blue’s Clues" and "Dora the Explorer."
Q. How do you define educational media?
A. Educational media is media that has a clear and specified curriculum. "Sesame Street" and "Sesame Beginnings," "Blue’s Clues," "Between the Lions," and "Dora the Explorer" are all good examples. Most of the shows on PBS have specified curriculums. These are all good ones for your children to watch. I also like "Pinky Dinky Doo," a new show on Noggin.
Q. How likely is the American Academy of Pediatrics to reverse its view that kids under two shouldn’t watch TV?
A. The AAP recommendation was made in 1997 before there were any studies about kids two and under. The statement needs to be reevaluated, but with only a handful of studies out there, it won’t happen any time soon.
Q. Why isn’t there more research on this topic?
A. The number of people who study kids and the media is really small. I can count probably 10 that do this kind of research. There’s no funding. You have to come in back door with funding for literacy. So I find it incredible that there are 54 studies about using calculators in third grade, and only eight studies for television usage for children under two.
Q. You are a parent. How do you handle TV in your house?
A. It’s more challenging for me now that my kids are 9 and 13. When they were younger than six, it was very simple to monitor and supervise their viewing habits. And as they grew older, I taught them media literacy skills, including how to be critical viewers and how to challenge assumptions. It’s important to understand reality versus fiction and to think about violence. In programs like “Rugrats” or “Fairly Oddparents” the characters treat their parents poorly, and they treat each other poorly. This is not how we deal with social and emotional issues, so they can’t watch it. I’m pregnant with our third child, and I’m looking forward to having a newborn so I can see more of the programs for younger kids myself.
Q. Do you think educational videos are worthwhile for babies?
A. By virtue of their names, like Baby Einstein, they encourage a culture for parents that says: “If I don’t buy this, I’m putting my kid at a disadvantage.” That consumer exploitation really bothers me. The truth is that we don’t know enough about their educational value, but if it gives you 15 minutes to prepare dinner, sit down or take a break, I don’t have a problem with TV.
Q. What happens when kids watch shows for adults?
A. Even if your child isn’t focused on what you are watching, it decreases the quantity and quality of parent-child interaction, and it seems to interrupt their play. Kids don’t get into cognitively complex levels of play when TV is on. As for commercials, up until the age of eight, kids don’t distinguish between ads and regular programs, so that’s another problem.
Q. And what about violent cartoons?
A. The studies all say the same thing, violent cartoons are bad. But I want to move beyond whether TV is is good or bad to how can it be good or bad. Content matters the most.
Lauren Young is a department editor for BusinessWeek's Personal Business section. Her articles have also been published in The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Houston Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal Europe, USA Today, The Mexico City News, T. Rowe Price Investor and other publications. She contributes to BusinessWeek's Working Parents blog as well as its Investing Insights blog. Ms. Young, 38, is a frequent guest on television (CNN, NBC, as well as numerous radio programs throughout the country. She is a 1989 honors graduate of Penn State University and received her Masters in Journalism from Northwestern University in 1993. Currently, Ms. Young resides in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn with her husband, Jon Gordon, and her son, Leo.