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Do Electronics Create Sedentary Kids?

Understanding Possible Effects of Computer Use on Kids

What does just being a kid mean today?

The short answer is: Electronics. Hand-held electronic games. Computers and computer games. Videos and video games. And, of course, television. That's what today's childhood entails.

Sure, we had television when we were kids. But there weren't as many channels to choose from. The reception might've been lousy. Our parents allowed us to view only one or two select programs. And, besides, we wanted to go out and play!

Today, children spend the better part of their waking lives watching television. In fact, it's been estimated that between the ages of 2 and 17, American children spend an average of three years of their waking lives watching TV (this doesn't even include time spent watching videos, playing video games or using the computer)! That's the equivalent of over 15,000 hours in front of the set (about 1,000 hours a year) – as compared with 12,000 hours spent in a classroom. The end result? A total of 27,000 hours – more than six years of their young lives – without a whole heck of a lot of movement.

Perhaps most disturbing is how early it all starts – how entrenched in the habit children become before they're even preschoolers. Take a moment to absorb these facts from a study of 2,858 children who were part of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth: Seventeen percent of infants under age 1 and almost half of the toddlers under 2 watch at least one hour of TV a day. One in four children under the age of 3 – and 41 percent of 2-year-olds – are in front of the TV at least three hours each weekday. Ten percent of 1-year-olds and 16 percent of 2-year-olds are watching television five or more hours a day!

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), when television viewing becomes habitual for children ages birth to 3, it's a practice that lasts. In fact, 2-year-olds who watch too much TV are two and a half times more likely to watch an excessive amount by the time they're 6.

As appalling as these statistics are, they're unfortunately not all that surprising. Many childcare situations have TVs available. Children home alone after school often opt for the company of the box – and there's no one to tell them they can't. Also, as mentioned, parents are busy these days. The television keeps children "busy, happy and good" – in other words, out of adults' hair.

And watching television is a national pastime, with Americans in general spending 40 percent of their leisure time in front of the tube. By the time the average person hits age 70, he or she will have spent about seven to 10 years watching TV. Children do follow the lead of the role models in their lives.

In 1999, the AAP issued a policy statement suggesting that children under age 2 not be allowed to watch TV because "babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant care givers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional and cognitive skills."

While parents can certainly see the validity of this statement, many of them were nonetheless displeased with the guidelines. They wondered how they were supposed to make dinner if their infants and toddlers weren't allowed to watch TV.

But as Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Boston, points out, parents still had to cook dinner 50 years ago, and they had no television to provide a distraction. "It's so enmeshed in our society and our patterns that we don't have the imagination to know how else to do it," he says.

On the other hand, Robert Sachs, president of National Cable Television, contends that denying children TV is no more likely to encourage them to enjoy other activities, like reading, than denying them ice cream would encourage them to like Brussels sprouts. What Mr. Sachs fails to consider, however, is that if there were no television to fall back on, children would have to find something else to do! We did, didn't we?

Sadly, these days, that "something else" could well involve something else electronic. One study reports that children spend approximately 33 hours a week being electronically entertained (including but not exclusive to television) – an average of nearly five hours a day. Another, in 1999, found that children spend an average of six hours and 32 minutes a day with various media combined! It's unlikely the situation has improved since then.

Video games, once almost exclusively the entertainment of adolescents, have become popular fare for preschoolers as well. And the trend is growing. It seems everyone from Sesame Street (Elmo alone had at least four at last count) to the Teletubbies to Blue's Clues is marketing video games for preschoolers. And just try to lure the little ones away from them once they've gotten hooked!

Then, of course, there are the computers. Without a doubt, computers are an invention most of us can no longer imagine living without. But there's a great deal of controversy regarding the age at which children really need to begin using them.

Alison Armstrong and Charles Casement, authors of The Child and the Machine: How Computers Put Our Children's Education at Risk (Robins Lane Press, 2000), tell us computers and television have more in common than is generally acknowledged.

Both, they say, involve individuals sitting motionless before a screen that feeds them "a rapid succession of images." They add: "Both computers and television present us with an artificial world that undermines our ability to experience the real one. We should bear this in mind when contemplating the possible effects of computer use on young children."

Naturally, this isn't the place to delve into the ill effects of computer use on children under the age of 8. For the purposes of this chapter, motionless is the key word. Whether staring at a computer or a television screen, the children are sedentary! And they're not just plopped in front of computers at home either; more and more class time is being spent at computers, in lieu of learning that uses a variety of senses.

In 1967, writing in The Aims of Education, Alfred North Whitehead stated: "I lay it down as an educational axiom that in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies." No one, it seems, took note. Thirty-five years later, were he writing in a publication for parents, he might well issue a similar warning for them and their offspring.

This article is excerpted from Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional and Cognitive Development Through Age-Apropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003) by Rae Pica

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