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When mom needs a break, TV will do

Oh dear. Are my children ruined? Have I blown it as a parent?

The oldest is only 9, the youngest 6. The reports from summer school came in today and positively glowed. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, I may have already done them lasting harm and earned myself a permanent place as a negligent mother. The culprit? Television. Again.

Television was labeled as a health hazard in an academy report published in the August issue of Pediatrics. According to the academy's recommendations, children under 2 should not watch television, and older children should not have television sets in their bedrooms. I'm doing okay about television sets in kids' bedrooms (although my sister and I may be permanently scarred), but I blew it on the babies.

They both watched television before the age of 2. Videos, too. Some days, I'm not sure I could have survived without it. It's Barney time, I would say. Thank God. Is that so bad?

The academy's recommendation, it turns out, is based not on the finding that kids who watch Barney are more likely to grow up to be delinquent but rather on the fact that what small children need most for proper brain development is close-up interaction with older people. Dr. Marjorie Hogan, the lead author of the report, concedes that no reliable research has been done on how television viewing affects children younger than 2. But since children need interaction with adults, and since they can't have it while watching television, the academy recommends no television. Come again?

Of course babies need to talk to mom, and play with her, and make funny noises, and roll on the floor. But sometimes mom needs a break. Sometimes mom feels like drinking a cup of coffee, or talking to a friend, or reading a newspaper, or screaming. Instead of screaming, you turn on Barney.

With all due respect to the American Academy of Pediatrics, it doesn't take an M.D. degree to know that children shouldn't be planted in front of the television set for endless hours of viewing. A little goes a long way.

Nor is television a monolith. Some shows are plainly inappropriate for children, small and large. Some shows are inappropriate period. And some shows are smart and stimulating.

Part of the job of being a parent is to take responsibility for what your children watch and for how long. Kids shouldn't eat candy three times a day either, but that doesn't mean that an occasional piece will hurt them. Take it away completely, and they may end up wanting it even more.

You can go far in politics, and maybe pediatrics, by blaming television for the ills of our kids. Guns don't kill; television does. So what if youth violence is actually decreasing. Forget about the fact that people all over the world watch the same shows and movies we do and don't kill each other. It's easier to blame television than to deal with the other obstacles and dangers that young children face.

ABC's ad campaign, with tongue in cheek, pronounces that "television is good for you." I'm not sure I'd go quite that far. But there are moments when it is certainly better than the alternatives. Even for babies.

Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist and a law professor at the University of Southern California.

Creators Syndicate