NEW YORK — The first few times she asked for a TV in her bedroom, Mara Mellstrom's dad said "no." So she kept asking, in that unwearying eight-year-old way.
Now, on the desk beside her bed, sits a Sony TV with cable, a VCR, a drawer full of videos, and two remote controls.
Sound luxurious? Well, she's hardly the only underage owner of a clicker. A majority of US kids have TVs in their rooms: around 65 percent, according to several recent studies. Even toddlers are tuned in. Some 26 percent of two- to four-year-olds can watch "Teletubbies" from the comfort of their own beds.
"Almost every parent will face the decision about TV in the bedroom," says David Walsh, head of the National Institute on Media and the Family, which just released a study on the issue. "Most parents are deciding 'yes.' "
Now research is building on what the presence of TVs in kids' rooms means - and the findings are sobering. (Kids and the Web, page 4.)
None of this means "every child who has a television in her or his bedroom will stop reading or any of those things," Dr. Walsh says. "But it raises the likelihood that those kids will watch more television without supervision."
His study, which is among first comprehensive pictures of how a TV in the bedroom affects children, found that those kids spend significantly more time in front of the tube and perform worse in school than children without their own TVs.
And, while the data does not prove that watching TV in general causes children harm, it does show that children who have TVs in their bedrooms engage in fewer family activities and tend to watch programs without parental supervision.
These findings lead some experts to conclude that, when it comes to children and media, parents' actions contradict their concerns. "Parents are greatly concerned that their kids are being exposed to too much sex and violence through the media," says Vicky Rideout, director of a 1999 Kaiser Family Foundation study of children's media use. Yet, "many parents aren't exercising much control over their kids' exposure to media."
Enshrining a TV where kids can see it late at night and right when they open their eyes in the morning also doesn't do much to encourage limits, experts point out. "We send a lot of messages and encourage a lot of behavior by the arrangement choices we make," says Walsh, a developmental psychologist.
But Mara says that, despite her decor, she doesn't watch her TV more than an hour or two a day. And her mother, Holly, says Mara is hardly a couch potato. She plays hockey, goes swimming, and takes piano and voice lessons. "I probably should have rules," says Mrs. Mellstrom. "But Mara is pretty self-regulating."
So is Sarah Kooperkamp. "There aren't really any programs that I find to be interesting," says the teenager.
Sarah does not have a TV in her room, and the lone television in her family's Manhattan apartment usually is only turned on for Mets' games. "I was just thinking the other day that we could throw the thing away and not miss it very much," says Earl, her father.
And their TVs are just one of the many information outlets the youth of today can access.
"I think that's a good thing. And I think that's a bad thing," says Donald Roberts, a specialist in children and media who teaches at Stanford University in California.
Creating media-literate children, perhaps, will be one of the greatest challenges in the coming decades, according to Dr. Roberts. "Thinking about the messages in the media is a major step toward media literacy," he says. "Knowing how to use this stuff, knowing how to judge it, is important."
In addition to learning how to judge television, Sarah thinks her peers need to learn how to turn it off. "I think TV really prevents a lot of kids from doing things that are much more beneficial," she says, adding that her best friend watches TV almost incessantly.
"She knows it's bad for her," says Sarah. "If she has schoolwork to do, she has to put her pillow in front of the TV to keep from watching it."
A pillow, because the TV is in her room.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society