TUESDAY, May 3, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- More than two-thirds of daycare centers included in a new U.S. study have TVs available for children to watch, and nearly 60 percent of the centers ignored the American Academy of Pediatrics' guidelines for television exposure in young kids.
The study, conducted in Ohio, suggests that many children at daycares may be missing out on the kind of hands-on learning that only human interaction can bring.
"The thing about television is that if it's developmentally appropriate, it's not evil, but it comes at the expense of interpersonal interaction, which is really how children achieve developmental goals," explained one expert, Dr. Rahil Briggs, director of the Healthy Steps program at Montefiore Medical Group in New York City. She was not involved in the new study.
"When children are plopped in front of the TV, they can be missing out on what's more important for social and language development: social interaction," she said.
The findings are slated to be presented Tuesday at the Pediatric Academies Societies meeting in Denver.
For youngsters in child care, the American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children under 2 watch no TV at all. For kids in childcare over 2, the AAP suggests that TV should be on no more than once a week, and for no more than 30 minutes per session, according to the study.
There's good reason for the guidelines, experts say.
"The evidence around TV and children is that TV viewing is associated with obesity, which may be because it's replacing physical activity time, kids may be eating while they're watching TV, or because of exposure to food ads," said Dr. Kristen Copeland, lead author of the new study.
"In children under 2, the concern is with learning and cognitive development. Learning occurs mostly through interaction with adults," said Copeland, who is assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of general and community pediatrics, at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
Sometimes, she acknowledged, parents may have to use TV to entertain their child while they perform essential household chores. But, she said, when a child is in daycare, there are different expectations.
Briggs agreed. "When parents put children in early childcare, they're expecting that it will be an early learning opportunity. And if the TV is on in daycare, it's taking up time that should be so much better used," she said.
The current study included 255 daycare centers in Ohio. No in-home daycare providers were included in the study. The centers took care of children between infancy and 6 years old.
Overall, 177 (69 percent) of the daycares had a TV, and children watched TV an average of four times per month. Rates of TV exposure was highest (94 percent) at centers serving the oldest children (ages 3 to 6), and 10 percent of daycares had a "TV on in [the] background," the researchers noted.
Only 41 percent of the daycare centers surveyed met all of the AAP's TV viewing guidelines.
About half the time, the TV viewing was educational in nature or related to a class theme, the researchers noted, 30 percent of TV-time was on entertainment programs, while 20 percent was mixed education/entertainment viewing, according to the study.
The good news from this study: most (81 percent) of the daycare centers studied prohibited TV viewing for children under 2 years of age.
Centers that met all of the AAP guidelines were likely to be national chains, have national accreditation, have higher tuition and to have fewer children with subsidized tuition, reported the study.
The study also took a brief look at computer use in daycare. They found that 77 percent of centers used computers. Most -- 88 percent -- said they had a limit on computer time, and the average time spent on the computer was 17 minutes. But, 84 percent allowed classmates to look on while another child was using the computer.
"Computers are a really new area that may be growing. I was surprised at how prevalent they were for this age group," said Copeland.
Copeland said that if parents are concerned about their young children's media use, the first step is to limit home use, and follow the AAP recommendations for less than two hours a day of total screen time.
If parents are shopping for daycare, she said that TV and computer use should be on their list of questions. And if your child is already in a daycare that uses a TV, discuss your concerns with the center's director. "Often, when parents are asking for something, the center will change. It is a business, and they want to keep your business," she said.
Of course, Briggs is also cognizant that some parents just don't have a lot of choices when it comes to daycare. Still, she said, it can't hurt for parents to make their preferences known, including sharing the AAP guidelines with the daycare staff and asking how often the television is used.
Because the study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, its findings should be considered preliminary.
For more on kids and TV, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics.