Amy Jordan publishes commentary in this week's Philadelphia Inquirer

Amy Jordan, Senior Researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, published a commentary, "Toddlers at the screen: How much is too much?" in the Philadelphia Inquirer June 14 edition. Full text of the commentary appears below.

Toddlers at the screen: How much is too much?
Watching TV shows and DVDs is important for kids, say makers. But so is interacting with parents.
By Amy B. Jordan

Infants, toddlers and preschoolers are watching television and DVDs and playing video games upward of two hours a day, according to a much-cited Kaiser Family Foundation report. If you are the parent of a wee one, you're not surprised. And if you're trying to follow the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics (no screen time for children under the age of 2 and only one or two hours of educational media for older kids), you probably feel as if you're fighting a losing battle. Truth is, putting a child in front of a screen can be a welcome relief for stressed-out parents. What's more, some research even justifies an educational show - Sesame Street or Blue's Clues - here or there.

But as someone who has studied the growing recognition - and exploitation - of the market for "properties" aimed at very young children, let me tell you about my worries.

I worry about the temptation to use television and DVDs as a permanent baby-sitter. Yes, TV shows and DVDs allow dinners to be made, important calls to be taken, or trash to be carried to the curb. But when children spend more time looking at a screen than interacting with a real-life human, important opportunities for social, physical, and cognitive development are missed. Children need to hear their parents respond to them to develop good vocabularies. They require elaborate pretend play to expand their imaginations. And they need a good book and a soft lap to connect reading with positive feelings.

I worry that the makers of so-called educational products are persuading parents that if their child isn't exposed to Mozart by the time she is 9 months old, or if he doesn't learn to navigate the computer by the time he is 3, then they are somehow failing their child. This is a marketing strategy - and a successful one at that. The truth is, we don't actually know what very young children learn from the media they are exposed to. What's a responsible parent to do? Check the back of the DVD to see what it purports to teach? Trust a computer game-maker's claims that it is offering "edutainment"? In the kid-vid world, there's no Food and Drug Administration checking the accuracy of content. Those claims need to be validated. Products need to be tested. And independent researchers need to stay up to speed with developments in the marketplace - an incredibly lucrative business that plays on the best and worst of parental motivations.

I worry that with each succeeding generation we are raising more and more "couch potatoes." (In this case, "infant-seat french fries.") We don't know yet whether heavy media viewing as a very young child leads to heavy viewing at other stages of childhood. If there is a link, and I suspect the answer is yes, then there is cause for concern. Too much time staring at a screen can lead to a host of problems, including obesity and academic struggles. Finally, I worry that what some parents think is a good thing - sustained and focused attention to a screen for longer and longer stretches of time - might actually be doing harm.

Many parents praise computer games, DVDs, and TV shows because they captivate and quiet their children. They are pacifiers. And everybody needs to buy a little peace in a busy kid-filled household. But that peace may come with a price: The loss of our kids' active imaginations.

Amy B. Jordan (ajordan@asc.upenn.edu) is director of the Media and the Developing Mind Sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.