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-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Baby’s Father’s Gone, So the Boob Tube’s On




The American Academy of Pediatricians sees no good coming from children below the age of two watching television. Indeed, the Academy warns that “excessive media exposure in early childhood poses many developmental and behavioral health risks,” including “later problems with language development, cognition, attention, executive functioning, and school achievement.” Unfortunately, their warnings on the matter have gone unheeded in far too many American households, especially those run by a single mother. Indeed, a recent study launched to determine if fussy infants were exposed to distinctively high levels of television ended up identifying the single-mother household as a setting where babies are particularly likely to be fussy and especially likely to view a lot of television.

Affiliated with the University of Washington and Boston Medical Center, the authors of the new study initially wondered whether “child self-regulation” predicts amount of exposure to electronic media. That is, they wondered whether levels of media exposure do not run distinctively higher among “infants and toddlers who have difficulties with self-soothing, falling and staying asleep, and modulating their emotional states” than among infants and toddlers manifesting no such difficulties. After all, it can be “very challenging to parent” such fussy babies and infants, making it very tempting to turn to an electronic babysitter.

To resolve this question, the researchers examined data collected for 10,700 American children born in 2001 and tracked from the age of nine months until their entry into kindergarten. When analyzed in a statistical model that adjusted for variables such as the child’s race and age, mother’s age, and household income, the data in view do in fact show that “infants with self-regulation problems watched 0.15 hour more media per day compared with infants with no/mild problems.” The data also establish that “excessive media exposure (>2 hours per day) was more common in infants with self-regulation problems.”

But the link between child self-regulation and media exposure “retained only borderline significance” in the statistical model that adjusted for relevant variables.  

Indeed, beyond this modest link between child self-regulation and media exposure, two other linkages may deserve attention at a time when four in ten babies are born out of wedlock and when millions of children see their parents divorce. First, the researchers identify a number of household circumstances in which “infants were more likely to be rated as having poor self-regulation.” These circumstances include low household income, low maternal education, and—tellingly—single-parent family structure. Similarly, regardless of child self-regulation, children’s media exposure ran higher in households characterized by low maternal education, poor maternal health, and—once again—single-parent family structure.

So though the new study does establish a real but minimal link between child fussiness and media exposure, the real question it raises seems to direct attention not so much to the child’s temperament but rather to the child’s household. It would appear that living in a fatherless household helps determine both whether the child is especially fussy and whether the child is exposed to excessive electronic media.

The researchers have reason to worry about how “mild excesses in media use in early childhood may predict a trajectory of increasingly excessive use through adolescence.” But everyone should worry much more about a fatherless social world in which a fitful and crying baby is soothed by nothing but a blaring TV set.

(Jenny S. Radesky et al., “Infant Self-Regulation and Early Childhood Media Exposure,” Pediatrics 133.5 [2014]: e1172-e1178, Web.)

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