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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When kids aren't in school, there's a pretty good chance you can find them -like it or not - in front of the television. Over the next three days, we're going to hear a series of reports on children and the media.

Today, we begin with preschoolers.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For many weary parents of preschoolers, television can be a godsend, and some of the programming is educational. But some experts say even the most positive children's television can carry messages that are not good for children.

Here's NPR's Kim Masters.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Julie Courtney and Angelica Flores are moms of four-year-olds who play together.

Unidentified Child #1: We are best pals. We're best amigos.

Unidentified Child #2: Yeah. That means best friends.

MASTERS: Both mothers try to restrict their girls to watching child-friendly channels like Nick, Jr. But still Flores has observed that the media has an impact on her daughter, Araceli, that is not all positive.

Ms. ANGELICA FLORES (Mother of toddler): What I've noticed is what they want.

MASTERS: It's not just products that she sees advertised on the shows, it's all kinds of merchandise associated with particular cartoon characters.

Ms. FLORES: I mean, my daughter just sees the Cinderella - anything that has Cinderella or the princesses on it, like for example, the gummy fruits or something like that, and she wants it.

MASTERS: With four-year-old Araceli and seven-year-old son Tomas asking for things like SpongeBob Macaroni and Cheese, Flores says trips to the grocery store have become more challenging.

Ms. FLORES: A lot of times I find I buy it, and it's stuff that they don't even like.

MASTERS: Flores's friend, Julie Courtney, often digitally records her four-year-old's shows so she can skip the commercials. Nonetheless, she's noticed that her daughter, Sarah, recognizes the logo for Coca-Cola.

Ms. JULIE COURTNEY (Mother of toddler): So she does connect some of the symbols, even though she doesn't read yet, some of the symbols with the products.

MASTERS: According to Vicky Rideout, of the Kaiser Family Foundation, that's not unusual. Her research has shown that many parents of preschool-age children have an uneasy awareness of the impact of commercials on their kids.

Ms. VICKY RIDEOUT (Kaiser Family Foundation): One mom mentioned to me about her daughter, who couldn't even talk yet, humming the McDonald's jingle every time she saw the Golden Arches.

MASTERS: But Rideout's research says that discomfort does not translate into real concern for parents, that in fact, most parents see appropriate programming as a godsend. About a third of children 6 and under even have a television in their room, just so they can watch their shows while parents are occupied elsewhere.

(Soundbite of Nickelodeon show)

Unidentified Woman: Count with me in Spanish. Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco -

MASTERS: Cyma Zarghami, the president of Nickelodeon, says her own company's research confirms that parents aren't worried about television. They focus on issues like safety, making family life manageable, living within a budget - but not the impact of media. Yes, Zaraghami says, some complain that food ads aimed at kids have turned grocery shopping into a battle. And Nickelodeon does try to address that by promoting some healthy products, like Dora the Explorer carrots.

Ms. CYMA ZARGHAMI (President, Nickelodeon): And we actually have just a spectacular dialogue with every advertiser as well, so that everybody is sort of marching to the beat of the same drummer in terms of what we want to do to be good for kids.

MASTERS: But ultimately, Zarghami acknowledges, Nickelodeon believes that by putting characters on products, it is serving kids, who are its real customers.

Ms. ZARGHAMI: You know, we don't ever want to say that we didn't do stuff that kids wanted or loved, again, within the parameters of being responsible and age-appropriate.

MASTERS: And that applies to products that may not be ideal for children.

Ms. ZARCGHAMI: Some of the cereals and snack foods, healthy or not healthy, are really helping kids connect, in some ways emotionally, to the characters that they love.

MASTERS: Mayo Clinic pediatrician Dan Broughton says if parents aren't concerned about the impact the media is having on their kids, they should be. Broughton speaks for the American Academy of Pediatrics on this issue, and he says parents tend to worry too much about statistically remote dangers, such as child abduction or cancer.

Dr. DAN BROUGHTON (Mayo Clinic): Those are things that are very uncommon, yet exposure to media is something that they can actually deal with and it's right there at home. And they tend not to worry as much and talk as much about that. And so one of the things we are trying to do is to get them to focus on it.

MASTERS: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 2 should never be in front of a television, even watching those made-for-baby videos. Toddlers should spend no more than two hours a day with the television on and they should be restricted to quality children's programming.

Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation says most parents of children under six do try to monitor what their children watch on television. Most, but not all. According to Rideout's research, about a third of young children live in homes where parents leave the television on almost all the time, regardless of whether anyone is watching.

Ms. RIDEOUT: And they think that leaving the TV on in the background, the kids are just mostly ignoring it.

MASTERS: But pediatrician Dan Broughton says children take in a lot, even if they are only occasionally exposed to programming intended for general audiences. A colleague recently told him about a father who brought in his four-year-old with an earache.

Dr. BROUGHTON: So, the physician said to the father, do you have any other questions? And so, the little boy said, Dad, we're supposed to ask about Levitra.

MASTERS: Broughton says that question about a widely advertised drug for erectile dysfunction shows that children are attentive to messages that aren't intended for them. And he adds that even the majority of parents who do restrict their children to age-appropriate programming should be concerned. Yes, those programs can be educational, he says, but if there are commercials, preschool-aged children are not equipped to process the information.

Mr. BROUGHTON: The child doesn't say, okay, now this is a commercial so I need to view it differently. They tend to view it as, this is part of the program and this is all true.

(Soundbite of commercial)

MASTERS: And with cartoon characters plastered on various products, Broughton observes, it isn't just the commercials that are doing the selling.

Mr. BROUGHTON: Many programs almost can be viewed as 10 minutes of advertising, followed by three minutes of advertising, followed by 10 minutes of advertising.

MASTERS: Harvard psychologist Susan Lynn agrees. Lynn is cofounder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a group that wants to end marketing of junk foods to children under eight. Lynn says the advertising issue goes beyond non-nutritious foods and the burgeoning problems of obesity and diabetes. Characters in children's programs like Dora the Explorer are used to sell toys, clothing, theme parks, hotels and more.

Dr. SUSAN LYNN (Harvard University): It's sad that just about every media experience for children today is designed to sell them something.

MASTERS: Certainly mother Angelica Flores had an experience with Dora the Explorer merchandise that she could've lived without. The trouble started when her daughter was given a Dora underwear set, complete with a little top. To Flores, it looked like a bra.

Ms. FLORES: And she loved it and I was really furious. Because she just wanted to wear - actually she thought it was a top. And I remember the day she wanted to go to her brother's soccer practice and we had this big crying fit because she wanted to wear the little bra as a top.

Ms. ZARGHAMI: We don't put product into the marketplace until we get demand.

MASTERS: Cyma Zarghami, the president of Nickelodeon.

Ms. ZARGHAMI: And that's, you know, food, toys, T-shirts, key chains or, you know, magazines. We don't do anything until we get demand back from the parent.

MASTERS: But Harvard's Susan Lynn believes that parents don't realize they are succumbing to a sophisticated multibillion-dollar advertising industry. And the only way to combat that, she says, is through activism against advertising aimed at young kids.

But she acknowledges that many parents don't support her position, even when it's restricted only to junk food. While she's gotten letters of encouragement, she says, parents also send in a startling amount of hate mail. And according to Kaiser Family Foundation research, while half of parents say their young children are greatly influenced by food advertising on television, 56 percent oppose policies restricting junk food ads.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

NORRIS: Spongebob Macaroni and Cheese is just the beginning. Check out some off-beat marriages of merchandise and characters, along with an excerpt of Susan Lynn's book, Consuming Kids, at our website, NPR.org.

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