WASHINGTON (CNS) — Every time you ask a question about your TV, even if it doesn’t answer back, you’re doing the right thing. You are becoming more media literate.

It’s perfectly fine to ask questions about the pervasive influence of commercials, the content of programming, and the seductive spell cast by the glow of the flat screen (or tube, if you’ve got an old-enough set that still works).

The task becomes a critical one for parents as they grind their teeth in anxiety over making TV their children’s electronic baby sitter. Or making the computer the sitter. Or the video game.


A new online guide, produced jointly by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Alliance for Childhood in collaboration with an organization called TRUCE — short for Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment — helps clarify the issues for parents, and grandparents, too.

Called “Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology and Early Education,” the 27-page guide asks and addresses the questions about “screen time” that parents find difficult to frame, let alone resolve.

“Based on mounting evidence, we are worried about the harm done to children’s health, development and learning in today’s media-saturated, commercially driven culture,” says the foreword to “Facing the Screen Dilemma.”

The evidence, all duly footnoted, is daunting on its face. “Exposure to media violence is linked to aggression, desensitization to violence and lack of empathy for victims. Media violence is also associated with poor school performance,” the guide says.

“For preschoolers, watching just 20 minutes of a fast-paced cartoon show has been shown to have a negative impact on executive function skills, including attention, the ability to delay gratification, self-regulation, and problem solving,” it adds. “Extensive screen time is linked to a host of problems for children including childhood obesity, sleep disturbance and learning, attention, and social problems.”

But it doesn’t stop — or start — there. “On any given day, 29 percent of babies under the age of 1 are watching TV and videos for an average of about 90 minutes,” notes the guide. “Little is known about the amount of time children under 2 currently spend with smartphones and tablets, but in 2011 there were 3 million downloads just of Fisher Price apps for infants and toddlers.”

Even so, the guide asks, “how do we best support children’s growth, development and learning in a world radically changed by technology?”

The answer is not necessarily what you think. “Screens also take time away from children’s interactions with caring adults,” says “Facing the Screen Dilemma.” “Even when parents co-view television or videos with children, they spend less time engaged in other activities with their children.”

And for educators clamoring for “smartboards” to take the place of the chalkboard, and parents hoping to thrust an iPad into every first-grader’s hands, the guide has some startling news.

“There is no evidence to support the popular view — heavily promoted by companies that sell electronic media — that children must start early if they are to succeed in the digital age. And as smartphones and other new technologies become less expensive, more and more very young children are already spending too much time with them at home,” it said.

The use, or overuse, of screens at home has led educators to find out the hard way that many children new to the school environment have little if any experience at plain old tinkering. Even the basic motor skills needed to use a pair of scissors have to be taught because children’s hands have been used only to manipulate video game and smartphone controls at home.

While there will always be a place in the world for ultra-rich computer geeks like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs — neither of whom, the guide points out, came into contact with a computer until they were age 12 — there are additional kinds of learning to take place at school than computer skills.

These include “physical skills, social-emotional learning, the cognitive development that stems from active exploration and problem solving in a child’s own physical environment, oral language skills, and the creative use of a wide variety of play objects. These take time and often some adult support if they are to develop fully.”

See a pdf of the full guide here.


Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.


When you keep your eye on TV, what do you see? What are your likes or dislikes? What are your concerns and criticisms? Be as general or as specific as you wish. Send your comments to: Mark Pattison, Media Editor, Catholic News Service, 3211 Fourth St. NE, Washington, DC 20017.