How a child learns to play and study determines how he learns to think. This is good news for the marketing mavens. They understand that if you can get the kids in front of a television set early enough, you can turn babies into big-time buyers.
An attentive observer can verify this by watching children in the home, classroom, or on the playground. Kids who watch television, videotapes and DVDs for hours on end are vulnerable to short attention spans and soon develop a dependence on high-tech razzle-dazzle to learn. Loud music with a thumping beat, slogans shouted at high decibel and letters and numbers dancing across a screen can keep a child alert, but alert for what? And for how long?
My own observations, though limited, suggest that the kids deserve better than what their elders force upon them. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts say there's little reliable information about the effect of television on very young children. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation tried to find out and their report, just out, is called "Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers."
Theirs are not idle questions and answers. Most children - up to 65 percent in one study - grow up in homes where a television set is on at least half the day, suffusing their environment with often-mindless noise and distraction.
A tot may not be trained for the toilet, but he's easily trained to hit the ON button. At least 74 percent of children younger than 2, as measured in the survey, watch television. More than a fourth have a television set in their bedroom.
Weaning a child from the breast or bottle is easier than weaning him from the television screen. Soon we may get a Nielsen rating for tiny tots. Before PG-13, we can look for PG-2. Advertisers target parents as a gluttonous audience, eager to buy specific products from leakproof Pampers to leakproof learning programs, so it was only a matter of minutes before their babies were targeted as buyers, too.
"Recent years have seen an explosion in electronic media marketed directly at the very youngest children in our society," say the Kaiser researchers, who looked at children as young as 6 months. They found a booming market in videotapes and DVDs, some aimed at infants from a year to 18 months old, special keyboards for children as young as 9 months and a TV show for children as young as a year.
In an advertising culture big on focus groups and impact statements, babes in the wombs may soon be measured for the way extra-environmental sounds affect the pulse. If marketers can get crawlers hooked early enough, they can add years to the lives of their products (if not to the lives of their subjects).
Social, intellectual and emotional reactions are exceedingly malleable in the tiniest of our citizens. That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against children younger than 2 watching any television.
The Kaiser researchers found that when children watch a lot of television, their parents don't read to them often. Children with TV sets in their rooms, naturally, watch television more than those who don't. Four- to 6-year olds who watch a lot of television spend less time reading or playing outside than other children their age. Puff potatoes grow up to be couch potatoes.
Although parents say their little television addicts imitate "positive" television behavior, some observe increased aggressive behavior, especially among boys. Television invariably influences behavior, influence intensified when parents don't spend much time with the kids.
No glass screen can replace the warmth of loving arms around a child. No cartoon character - or interactive toy - can spontaneously relate to a child's needs. No animated story can soothe like the human voice of a storyteller speaking to the child on her lap.
A child who seeks silence becomes a small rebel with a big cause.
I sat in on a classroom of second graders in Washington the other day, watching them "design" a playground for their new school. They chose a castle for climbing, a fire truck for exploration, a track for running. One little boy, age 7, was proudest of one corner of the playground farthest from everything else. "It's a corner for solitude and reflection," he told me. Out of the mouths of babes.