As TV watchdog Nicholas Johnson once said, "All television is educational television. The question is: What is it teaching?" That observation is particularly poignant and relevant when applied to highly impressionable preschoolers.
Nearly half (43 percent) of infants under 2 years old watch TV every day, according to a study released last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation. And nearly 1 in 5 watch recorded videos every day. Among children 6 or under, TV and video watching is nearly ubiquitous (83 percent). These kids average about two hours of viewing a day. For a third of them, the TV is on all or most of the time in their home.
But wait: Don't we already know that the electronic nanny in the corner has a shady reputation? TV is supposed to be bad for kids. Playing outside in the fresh air or listening to a book read by a parent is good. What else is new?
Well, for one thing, the Kaiser report found that today's parents - themselves raised in front of TV's glow - seem less concerned about the effects of television on their children. In fact, some are absolutely enthusiastic about TV, not only in its ability to teach ABCs, but as a conveyor of moral values, such as the PBS shows that teach kids to share or help.
"He's always telling me what is right and wrong from the things he sees on TV," said one surveyed mother of an under-6-year-old.
The effects of TV on preschoolers loom more important as programmers, eager to find new audiences, have recently set their sights on infants. BabyFirstTV, launched earlier this month and available as a satellite channel, aims at 6-month-olds to 3-year-olds. The "Sesame Beginnings" DVDs from Sesame Workshop target children 6 months to 2 years old. PBS's KidsSprout channel brings preschool shows such as "The Berenstain Bears" and "Teletubbies" into homes 24 hours a day. "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" videos advise parents to place their infants in front of the tube to give them an early educational boost.
Of course, any one children's show can provide harmless entertainment and even teach positive lessons. But shows aimed at under-2-year-olds are especially worrisome, since little is known about their effects on the very young. Because of that, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 should watch no TV programs at all, no matter how well intentioned or skillfully made.
Too much TV may even be linked to childhood obesity (just call 'em "crib potatoes"), some critics say. TV food ads have been linked to obesity among schoolage kids, according to a study from the federally funded Institutes of Medicine last December.
For parents, TV can be a nearly irresistible helper, used to wake kids in the morning or lull them to sleep at night - as a reward for good behavior or simply as a way to free parents for some precious downtime.
Let's not load too much guilt onto Mom and Dad. But relying on the Nanny Tube too much could generate later regrets. Plunking kids in front of TV "makes life easier now," said one mother of a preschooler, "but in the long run, when they're older and starting to run into all these problems, I think I'll wish I wouldn't have let them do it when they were 5."