Friday, December 12, 2008

Sprout Promotes TV as Sleep Aid

Hoping to fuel their own new Christmas tradition, PBS Kids Sprout -- the much debated 24 hr television network for toddlers and preschoolers -- will be airing an 11 hour long "Snooze-A-Thon" this Christmas Eve, aimed at building brand loyalty among toddlers, though the network is calling it "helping kids fall asleep" on that most exciting of nights. Here's the description from the press release:
From 6:00 p.m. ET on December 24 straight through to 5:00 a.m. ET Christmas morning, Sprout will air the "Snooze-A-Thon," an 11-hour, uninterrupted block showcasing popular nighttime host Nina and her puppet sidekick Star from The Good Night Show snoozing comfortably on the set, along with clips of beloved characters from preschool favorites like Sesame Street, Dragon Tales, The Hoobs, Pingu and Berenstain Bears catching some zzz's. So, no matter what time of night the kids are up checking for the sound of reindeer hooves on the roof, parents can tune into Sprout to show them that even their favorite television friends are fast asleep waiting for Santa to arrive.

Sure it sounds cute and all, but the idea of actually encouraging parents and kids to use television as a sleep aid (one that also just so happens to prolong kids' exposure to some of the most heavily commercialized brands in their cultural environment) seems irresponsible. Especially considering all the research that's come out showing that kids with TVs in their bedroom aren't getting a sufficient amount of sleep at night.

I'm thinking in particular of research conducted over the past few years for the Kaiser Family Foundation. For example, in 2003, Rideout et al. found that 26% of toddlers (under 2 years) and 43% of 4-to-6 year olds had a television in their bedroom. This study was followed up more recently by a review conducted by Frederick J. Zimmerman, who looked at studies linking heavy media use to sleep deprivation among children and teens. As Zimmerman writes:
Concern about media use and sleep in children dates at least to the 1970’s, and probably much before. A 1981 study of middle-class children in Indiana found a significant association between TV viewing and both shorter daytime naps and shorter nighttime sleep among toddlers. Such results have been replicated subsequently and seem to have grown stronger with time. Three recent studies of elementary-school children found that the amount of television viewed per day is significantly associated with lower total sleep time and with a general measure of sleep disturbance.

An equally strong predictor in one study was bedtime viewing, but the strongest predictor was having a television in the child’s room. The fact that a TV in the bedroom was significantly associated with sleep problems, even controlling for parentally reported total viewing time, raises the possibility that having a TV in the bedroom makes it possible for children to watch before bedtime without the parents’ knowledge. Sleep quality has also been related to media viewing. A recent study of infants and toddlers found that the amount of television viewing is associated with both irregular naptimes and irregular bedtimes.

These findings have been supported by a variety of sleep experts and pediatrician studies, including this one and this one.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that children in general are not getting as much sleep as they used to. As Zimmerman describes:
Recent research in the United States suggests that most children do not regularly get an amount or quality of sleep that would ensure optimal development and health. A 1981 study of children ages 1–5 in the U.S. identified average total sleep times of 11.5–13.5 hours. Twentyfive years later, a 2005 study of a similar sample of 1–5-year-old children identified average total sleep times of 9.5-11 hours. [...] Yet another recent study found that children ages 1–5 sleep an average of 8.7 hours per night. While the amount of sleep that would be judged adequate for this age range is unclear, it is almost certain to be more than the reported amount in this study.

In addition, it's estimated that between 20 and 30% of young children have some type of "sleep problem". This has lead some analysts to wonder if the relationship between media use and lack of sleep is really all that causal, or if it is perhaps correlational...i.e. kids who can't sleep end up using more media. But even with this added wrinkle (which reproduces the same argument that is eventually launched against any media effects research), there is absolutely nothing to suggest that media use in any way helps kids fall asleep.

Of course, empirical research doesn't always (or usually) have all that much influence on cultural practice when it comes to families and media use, and it seems to be no different here. According to Rideout et al.'s 2006 Media in the Family report, 30% of parents who put a television in their child's bedroom did so because they believe it "helped them sleep". Rideout et al. write:
Most parents don’t put their children to sleep to the TV (67% don’t have a TV in their child’s bedroom, and of those who do, 40% say they "never" put their child to bed with the TV on). However, as noted above, sleep crops up several times in the survey as among the reasons that many parents decide to put a TV in a small child’s room. Among parents with a TV in their child’s bedroom, three in ten (30%) say one reason they put a TV there is that it helps their child fall asleep, and about two in ten (19%) say they did it to try to get the child to sleep in his or her own room (instead of in the parent’s room). Among children with a TV in their bedroom, 37% (or 12% of all children) go to bed with the TV on half the time or more.

Parents also tend to see TV as having a generally calming influence on their children. In the same 2006 report, Rideout et al. describe:
Just over half (53%) of parents say that TV tends to calm their child down, while only about one in six (17%) say that TV gets their child excited. The rest of parents either say: TV calms and excites their child equally (9%); it depends on what the child is watching (8%) or on the child’s mood or time of day (3%); or they don’t know (10%). Television’s effect on children does not vary reliably with the child’s age or gender. Children who watch mostly entertainment shows are more likely to be calmed by TV than are those who watch mostly educational shows (72% vs. 50%).

This is likely part of what supports the idea that some parents have about TV helping their kids fall asleep. On the other hand, is "calming" the same as sleepy? Research would suggest not.

Another big issue here is the question of whether or not these findings are consistent across age groups. There are various and quite significant differences between children depending on age, maturity level, habitus, etc., both in terms of how media impacts them, how well they understand the content, and how media consumption makes them feel. And Zimmerman has found that although TV can be relaxing for "children of preschool age and older," it is quite possible that this is not the case for toddlers. Differences in cognitive processes between age groups, as well as the lack of research into toddlers' responses, are both good reasons to use caution when making generalizations on this issue.

This is also true of "television programs that have been specifically created to calm children down and help them fall asleep, and are promoted to parents as such." Just like the Baby Einstein scandal, where it was eventually uncovered that there was NO research or evidence to support the company's claim that their products assisted children's development...a fact made all the more troubling when contrasted with the growing amount of research demonstrating that media exposure can actually have various harmful effects on toddlers and babies...there is no research to suggest that "calming" shows are more or less effective than other shows among this particular age group. I agree with Zimmerman's conclusion that "More research is required to assess the effects of different types of content on children’s relaxation and alertness at different ages."

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