Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Children and TV: What's Your "Media Diet"

The American Academy of Pediatrics has released some new recommendations regarding infant sleep safety and television watching.

Time's Bonnie Rochman has a summary of the study, ultimately declaring:

studies show that young children can't cognitively comprehend what's being said and retain that information. Dozens of studies affirming that finding were what prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to update its policy statement on media use for kids under 2 on Tuesday. The upshot: there is no such thing as educational TV for this bunch.
Perhaps the fascinating thing, though, is how many parents report feeling the opposite:

In a survey, 90% of parents reported that their children under 2 watch some TV. And more than half of parents said they think educational television programming is important for their young child.
And, even parents who know that television watching is not optimal admit to "secondhand television" in their households: "Up to 60% of families report that the television is always or often on, even when no one is watching."

Studies are consistent: the best way to teach a young child language and social skills is through interaction. Children under 2 don't have the cognitive abilities to process information from television and they react to interactive play. Even once children are cognitively able to process the messages, limited media exposure has proven to be best. 

This has led the AAP to recommend that children under 2 watch no television and that those over 2 are limited to two hours of total screen exposure. 

Of course--and especially when we take in "secondhand" television--those recommendations don't match the realities of most American households. Rochman cites a pediatrician, Ari Brown, who has a compromise: "think about how you're going to thoughtfully introduce media to your kids and about your own media diet as well."

"Media diet," you say? What an interesting metaphor for dealing with media as a parent. 

See, before I got pregnant, I didn't have a very healthy diet myself (I'm talking about the food kind). It wasn't awful, but it wasn't great. I had already cut out the fast food from my college days, but I was still throwing together highly processed convenient dinners every night and grabbing nutritionally empty snacks over the course of busy days. When I got pregnant, I started thinking about the way my nutrition was effecting my child, and I slowly started changing my habits. All in all, we eat pretty healthfully now, and I'm hoping that my daughter will grow up thinking that this diet (mostly whole foods, no artificial sugars, minimal processing) is the norm. 

Now, onto my media diet. We don't have cable or satellite--we had it, but we hardly ever watched it. We do have Netflix and the regular network stations. We don't watch a lot of TV. My husband watches football and basketball. I put on shows from Netflix instant watch (at the moment, Storage Wars) when I'm folding clothes or cleaning. 

We watch a lot of movies, however, and my daughter--who still sleeps in random bouts, made even more random by her current teething--has had some "secondhand" exposure. 

In Clay Shirky's book about new media Here Comes Everybody, he discusses the low-quality, high-quantity content of the internet: "Surely it is as bad to gorge on junk as to starve?" 

There, again, is the media as food metaphor. 

We also see it in the concept of "eat your peas" journalism--the idea that people should watch/read the daily news because it is part of being a healthy, informed citizen. 

So, the "nutrition" of media has to do with content. And maybe Shirky's right; maybe it's better to starve than gorge on junk, but wouldn't the best option be a healthy selection?

And this report singles out media that's consumed on a screen, but that's not the only media our children interact with. My daughter has stacks of books. She has toys that send her narrative messages through their shape, color, and design. When I take her to daycare, there are pictures on the walls and windows. She hears music. 

While it is important to take notice of these television recommendations, it's equally important to look at our media diet as a whole.  With our family food diet, I'm hoping to give my daughter habits she can take forward as she grows. Her media diet should be no different, and that means that content is prime. Critical thinking, analysis, and careful selection are the "digestion" tools I hope to impart.

Photo Credit: jeering

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