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Test tube babies

Times Staff Writer

Two weeks after she was born, Lilly Sayenga of Pasadena saw her first DVD, “Baby Einstein.”

At 5 months, Dakota Benjamin of Los Angeles held a bottle in her mother’s arms and quietly watched all of “A Love Affair,” a feature film starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Nov. 05, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 05, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Young audience -- An article in Oct. 29’s Calendar about the viewing habits of young children misidentified the movie “Love Affair” as “A Love Affair.”

At 2 years old, Georgia Miller of Sierra Madre sat on her mother’s lap at her computer and started manipulating the mouse.

Lilly, Dakota and Georgia are hardly unique; a new survey released Tuesday reveals that upwards of two-thirds of infants and toddlers (68%) now spend more than two hours a day watching TV, videos, DVDs and computer screens.

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Some parents of young children may not be surprised, and Nielsen Media already tracks TV viewing by children as young as 2, but researchers called the data about the very young viewers “astonishing,” saying they hadn’t known that preschoolers are starting to use media so early. “Where previous generations were introduced to media through print, this generation’s pathway is electronic,” said study co-author Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas in Austin.

The national survey of 1,065 parents of children ages 6 months to 6 years was conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Children’s Digital Media Centers, a consortium of researchers at four universities interested in children’s development. The random-dial telephone survey took place from April 11 to June 9. The margin of error is 3%.

Among the findings: 43% of those under 2 watch TV every day, and 26% have a TV in their bedrooms; 31% of those under 3 have used a computer; 14% have played video games.

While the topic is a hot button issue that normally raises fears and defenses among parents, most of them said they felt good about the media their children are exposed to because it’s educational and will help them perform better in school as they grow. The report found that for younger children, television viewing did not replace other activities. Among those ages 4 to 6, however, the study showed that heavy viewers (more than two hours a day) spend 30 minutes a day less playing outside than other children do, and eight minutes less reading.

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Eighty percent of parents of the 4- to 6-year-olds also observed their children imitate positive characters on television and half, more likely to be boys, imitate negative behaviors. Still, nearly 8 in 10 children under 6 will be read to in any given day, the report said.

A high proportion of children are using new digital media; 50% of 4- to 6-year-olds have played video games and 70% have used computers.

Nearly all (97%) children under 6 have products such as clothes or toys based on characters from TV shows or movies.

Gary Knell, president chief executive of Sesame Workshop, producer of PBS’ “Sesame Street,” said the study reaffirms his belief that “parents are not only not fighting media usage for these very young kids, but almost encouraging it.” Acknowledging that its viewers were getting younger, “Sesame Street” reconstructed its programs several years ago to make them more predictable and thus easier to follow for younger children. “It’s been successful,” he said. “It’s mirroring younger and younger usage of television and other media.”

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Whether programmers are responding to a new and younger audience or creating the demand themselves is a “chicken and egg” question, he said.

One impetus for the study was the heavy marketing in recent years of DVDs, videos and CD-ROMs like “Baby Einstein” -- a series of music- and art-related programs teaching babies to identify shapes, animals and music -- as well as TV shows like “Teletubbies,” the first targeted to 12-month-olds, and computers as learning tools for infants and toddlers, Wartella said. “We don’t want to say it’s bad. It depends on the content they’re being exposed to.” However, she added, “we need to say loud and clear we don’t know what the long term consequences are.”

While the American Academy of Pediatrics continues to say parents should not let children under 2 watch television, the new generation of parents appears to shrug off the advice. “Everyone I know who has children would say, ‘Are you kidding? Welcome to the 21st century. This is part of life,’ ” said Lilly’s dad, Kurt Sayenga of Pasadena.

“It’s like the air we breathe,” said USC sociologist Karen Sternheimer, author of “It’s Not the Media,” which aims to absolve media of blame as the primary cause of major social problems. “Even if kids are not seeking it out, it’s part of our atmosphere at this point.” Self-reporting by survey participants may have resulted in underestimates of actual usage, she added, noting that some studies indicate more affluent people like to talk about how little television they watch as a way to “create status for themselves.”

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Even outside the house, parents say their children can’t avoid media screens. At a day-care center at UC Irvine, teachers use a DVD to relax toddlers before their nap. In Glendale, babies and their mothers can attend Mommy and Me matinees at the local theater. At stores like the children’s clothing shop Gymboree, they can watch videos in their strollers while their parents shop.

At the Beverly Hills store, a mat is set on the hardwood floor so children can watch the 24-inch television, enclosed in plexiglass, which continuously plays a DVD of animal images and African-based music. “You put them in the stroller in front of the TV and they don’t even cry,” said store assistant Alex Thiessen.

While parents of young children today were themselves raised on “Sesame Street,” many are astonished at how intensely their children take to the visual images on television and computer screens. “It’s like crack,” said Martha Adams of Los Angeles. When her daughter was 1, she went “berserk” clapping, giggling and waving when she saw the “Teletubbies.” “If she just hears the hum of the television set she will do anything to get in front of the set.”

“It’s an insidious influence,” said Karen Miller, a writer from Sierra Madre, who first sat her daughter Georgia in front of a “Barney” show before her first birthday. “I wanted to buy the time to take a shower. I thought it would be fine, safe and benign. When I came back, I noticed she was motionless and completely absorbed by the imagery in front of her. And then I knew it was not to be dealt with casually, or that I should never deceive myself.”

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The proliferation of products aimed at young children is likely to continue, Sesame Workshop’s Knell said. “There’s clearly a market there. It seems to be exploding. If you look at the numbers, the makers of the ‘Baby Einstein’ series moved 5 million videos last year. That’s a huge number.”

So far, Knell said, content for children under 2 is “uncharted waters.” “We’ve done some early research on [infant] videos, and our advisors tell us they are overly stimulating. It’s exactly what you don’t want to have when your child is trying to emerge into his or her own world.”

Meanwhile, some parents like Miller and her husband are taking what she calls a difficult path of “moderation,” making conscious daily decisions about what to allow their children to watch.

It requires a lot of creativity, she said, in planning a day and planning her child’s downtime. “The responsibility never leaves me.”

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