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Analyzing pros, cons of kids and TV

When it comes to kids and television, Jill Kenyon's biggest concern veers from the topic of what kids are watching and looks closer at what they aren't doing as a result of sitting in front of the box. "I do think that contributes to some of the problems with the kids not getting exercise," Kenyon said.

SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and the Sesame Street crowd are no doubt entertaining to children, but do they provide any type of educational benefit to a developing mind?

The correct answer varies from parent to parent, but the American Academy of Pediatrics says TV won't provide what youngsters need most in the first few years of their lives.

AAP said in order for proper brain growth and social development, toddlers need direct interaction with people -- something they can't experience staring at a flat screen.

Still, the numbers show that kids are getting their fair share of TV at a young age. A study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 74 percent of infants and toddlers watched television before age 2 and 43 percent of them watch it daily.

The decision of whether to let your children watch TV can include much more than just the question of educational content or the number of hours that will be allotted each day.

"There's a lot of factors that you have to consider. The question goes further than just asking how much time," said Jill Kenyon, director of the Colvill Family Center in Red Wing. "It sort of all depends on the types of interactions that are going on with adults in the home the rest of the day."

If kids are getting a lot of human contact and communication throughout the day, Kenyon said she doesn't see harm in television being a part of their lives. However, she said she hopes activities that are literacy-rich and essential to development aren't being left behind just because TV is easy entertainment.

"When we're trying to help families, certainly we're finding other means. We're teaching parents how to interact and play with their child using materials other than TV," Kenyon said about those working at the Colvill Family Center.

Even among staff, Kenyon said opinions vary on whether kids should watch television or which age they should be allowed to start.

"I think it just really depends on your family values," she said, adding that she can see both positives and negatives to TV exposure at a young age.

"I have a nephew who's 3 and he's learned counting to 10 in Spanish through Dora," Kenyon explained. "I do think there can be educational value in some of those programs that kids enjoy. Now do I want that to be the only source where kids are getting their learning from? Absolutely not."

One of the negatives she pointed out was the fact that children need to be able to distinguish what's real from what's simply shown on television.

"You have to explain some of those aspects. Like, really, you can't live underwater like SpongeBob," she said.

Instead of watching designated children's shows, Kenyon suggested that sometimes shows on the Discovery Channel or Animal Planet can provide better education and possibly better entertainment if a child is very interested in the featured topic.

"In my mind, what's so bad about them watching a program on snakes?" she asked.

When it comes to kids and television, Kenyon's biggest concern veers from the topic of what kids are watching and looks closer at what they aren't doing as a result of sitting in front of the box.

As children get sucked into shows and the hours tick by, often television is not an additional activity for the day, but rather it replaces healthier options of entertainment.

"I do think that contributes to some of the problems with the kids not getting exercise," Kenyon said. "It's used in place of so many other things that are more valuable like activities outside and interactions with parents."

The Minnesota Department of Health said there is a definite connection between obesity and the amount of TV someone watches, and suggests many ways to help decrease the chances of childhood obesity. Some examples are to remove televisions from your child's bedroom, avoid eating in front of the TV and refrain from turning to the tube out of habit when you have nothing else to do.

A closer look...

Just nine minutes of a fast-paced television program hurts preschoolers' brains, according to an article published this month in Pediatrics

Dr. Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson wrote "The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children's Executive Function," which appeared in the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Their research goal was to study how fast-paced television shows immediately influence children's executive functions, including self-regulation and working memory.

The study tested 60 4-year-olds and deterred that just minutes of viewing a fast-paced cartoon had immediate negative effects. The authors warned that parents should be aware that programs including "SpongeBob SquarePants" could at least temporarily impair young children's thinking.