Parenting experts are alarmed at a new study that shows two thirds of Kiwi infants are watching up to three hours of television a day.
The findings of the Growing up in New Zealand survey of 7,000 New Zealand families are in stark contrast to recommendations from child health experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends no screen time for babies under two.
Data from the Growing up in New Zealand project found:
• Almost 64 per cent watched television, DVDs or videos at home for one to three hours a day.
• Nearly 9 per cent tuned in daily for more than three hours.
• 81 per cent were exposed to TV in the home, including adult programmes, for extended periods.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says a child's brain develops rapidly in the first years, and children learn best by interacting with people, not screens. It says studies have shown excessive media use can lead to developmental problems, sleep disorders and obesity.
Plunket chief executive Jenny Prince believes parents allowing children as young as two to spend long periods in front of TV and computer screens is a concern.
"At that age, having proper exercise is critical to a child's overall development," she said. "It would be a worry if children are getting into a habit of sitting watching hours worth of television in place of playing or being generally active. Kids need balance."
Dr Polly Atatoa-Carr, from Growing Up in New Zealand, believes the results will be an eye opener for parents. "The data is comparable to similar studies in the United States and elsewhere, so this would appear to be a worldwide issue - but it should sound a note of caution to our parents," she added.
The TV viewing habits were a concern to John Cowan, creative producer at Auckland-based family advice organisation The Parenting Place, because of possible links to obesity. Currently 11 per cent of Kiwi kids are considered obese.
"Obesity is a big danger to our kids and sitting watching TV for hours on end won't help," Cowan said. "Children also tend to snack when they are doing this and they will be seeing adverts for food in between programmes."
Almost one in five of the 2-year-olds in the study were also regularly active on home computers, tablets and other mobile devices.
Three quarters of those children spent up to an hour per day on a computer or laptop, with almost a quarter using them for between one and three hours. Almost half of the kids surveyed also listened to music on iPods, CDs and MP3 players for between one and three hours daily.
Debate has raged worldwide on the benefits of children using smart technology versus the damage it can cause to their cognitive abilities, social skills, physical skills and learning achievements.
A recent survey by internet security company AVG found 58 per cent of New Zealand children aged 3-5 could operate a smartphone or tablet, but only 8 per cent could tie their shoelaces.
Elaine Reese, professor of psychology at the University of Otago, believed 2-year-olds could learn from computer-based gadgets but was concerned about youngsters becoming overly reliant on them or being contacted by online predators.
"These devices are not inherently evil for kids," Reese said. "But parents need to be very careful how much they are being used and what they being used for, including who their children are communicating with at such an early age."
Age of the high-tech babysitter
Mum of three Kelly Parker let her kids watch as much television as they liked - within reason - when they were toddlers.
Parker and her family are participants in the Growing Up in New Zealand project. As part of the ongoing study, she answered questions about the TV and computer habits of her son Kaea when he was 2.
He is now 4 and Parker says he is a normal wee boy. "I'm one of the parents who let their kids watch about an hour and a half of TV or more a day," she says. "I am pretty relaxed about it and the kids even have their own television set."
As well as watching kids' programmes like The Wiggles when he was 2, Kaea also learned to use an iPhone, iPad and a home computer. "I didn't see anything wrong with letting him watch his favourite programmes while I was making dinner as it gave me a heap of peace," Parker says. "Kaea is very social and interacts well with his peers and adults, so I don't believe it has done him any harm."
Parker, from Hamilton, insists she has parental controls active on the family TV sets and computers at all times. "iPads and iPhones can be great portable babysitters at times ... They save a few tantrums and meltdowns. It is incredible how capable and comfortable young children are on these devices and in this technological age it is important they know how to use them."