Electric Youth

SINCE 1999, THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS (AAP) has recommended that children younger than two avoid “screen time” entirely. Research has shown that watching screen media can lead to irregular sleep patterns in infants, and it also may be associated with attention problems, delays in language acquisition, aggressive behavior, and lower achievement in school later on. What’s more, there’s evidence that spending time in front of screens keeps infants from doing things that are proven to be beneficial to their development: interacting with adults and simply playing.

Despite all this, a 2007 University of Washington study found that 90 percent of parents let their kids under two watch at least some screen media. And according to a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation study, 14 percent of children ages 6 to 23 months are exposed to two or more hours a day of electronic media.

Screen time also appears to be habit-forming. The University of Washington study found that children who watched TV when they were younger were more likely to protest when they were older and someone tried to turn off the set. And a 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that children between 8 and 18 years old were exposed to an average of seven and a half hours a day of screen time — an increase of an hour and 17 minutes in just five years. (To put that into perspective, screen time had increased by just two minutes in the previous five-year period.) Experts find all of this especially alarming because excessive viewing by school-age children is associated with psychological, physical, and social problems.

Beyond the effects of screen time itself on youngsters, there’s what they’re actually watching. The screens are platforms for an avalanche of marketing messages that target children. According to James McNeal, professor emeritus at Texas A & M and a pioneering researcher in the field of marketing to children, companies spend around $4.5 billion a year advertising products to children between the ages of 2 and 16. And Kunkel, the University of Arizona professor, says that scientific studies have shown that children under eight cannot understand the persuasive intent of advertising. At a fundamental level, then, advertising to children is simply unfair.

So it’s not surprising that the practice is either banned or restricted in some countries, Sweden, Norway, and Greece among them. When the Federal Trade Commission tried to limit advertising to children in the 1970s in the U.S., it was met with a backlash from corporations and the public. Soon after, Congress reduced the FTC’s powers and restricted its funding. If hobbling the FTC weren’t enough, the Federal Communications Commission under the Reagan administration ended specific guidelines governing ads that are aimed at kids. That change in 1984 led to the advent of what were essentially program-length commercials for toys. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles weren’t just cartoons — they were extended advertisements for action figures, apparel, and all manner of licensed products.

There’s also the fact that the products in commercials for children are often violent, hypersexualized, or fattening. That’s a problem, because, according to the AAP, there are more than 2,000 scientific studies showing that exposure to violent media increases the risk of aggressive behavior in children and adolescents, and because research has also documented a link between screen time and obesity in children. That could simply be the result of sitting around all day in front of the TV, or it could be from watching so many of the ads for crappy food that are aimed at children — more than $2.3 billion worth in 2006, according to the FTC. And if all that weren’t enough, emerging research suggests that the sexual content that characterizes so much of modern advertising may be linked to early sexual intercourse among teenagers.