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Are You Parenting on Auto-Pilot?

As parents, it is far too easy to place our brains -- and our kids -- on auto-pilot, especially where gadgets and media are concerned.
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A researcher at Children's Hospital in Seattle published an interesting study on Monday. Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a pediatrician who followed the habits of 3-5 year-olds reported by 565 parents.[i] For six months, two groups of families were followed. The first group was counseled on healthy eating habits and the second group was counseled on television viewing habits. The first group of "healthy eating" families acted as a control group because the true focus of the study was on television habits. The second group of parents was actively coached to replace more violent children's programming with educational programming, violent being identified as something like "Power Rangers" and educational identified as "Dora the Explorer." Over the course of the study, parents did periodic reporting of what their kids watched and how their kids behaved.

Both groups of children -- those with healthier eating habits and those with healthier viewing habits -- showed behavioral improvements, with a slight increase reported in social behavior for the television viewing group over the healthy eating group (who apparently continued to watch "Power Rangers" while they ate their broccoli). A "healthy" diet of educational programming tended to better decrease the violent tendencies of young children, especially low-income boys. While the reported conclusions of this study were not jaw-dropping, it is certainly positive to see specific research into the effects of screen-time, both how-much and what-kind, on our youngest citizens.

What caught my attention in this article, however, was not what happened during the six months of the study as much as what happened after. The study ran for half a year, but the families were tracked for a full year. The modest improvements in child behavior did not appear to be permanent; the benefits faded over time until, at a year, there was no difference between the two groups. So, what happened? Over time, I suspect that many of the study participants might have succumbed to an auto-pilot phenomenon.

By study participants, I don't mean the 3-5 year-olds. Pre-schoolers don't really succumb to auto-pilot, unless they're tired and cranky and determined to tell the world. This study tracked what children watched but the ones who watched the watchers, the ones with the remotes and the control, were the parents, who participated in the study as much as their kids did. The ones who are most susceptible to auto-pilot aren't kids but adults. As parents, it is far too easy to place our brains -- and our kids -- on auto-pilot, especially where gadgets and media are concerned.

What parent, tired and stressed out, overwhelmed and juggling multiple balls in the air, hasn't turned on the television or popped in a DVD in exchange for half-an-hour of precious time? Time, in our fast-paced and packed schedules, is indeed a precious commodity. I have to admit as a parent I have, at times, considered time more precious than my children. 've said things to myself like, "It's only one show," or "I just need to get this done," or "He's too little to really be affected by that." But studies like this take the cover off of those convenient, false assumptions and reveal just how influential media is.

In this article, one of the study mom's was quoted as saying, "I didn't realize how much Elizabeth was watching and how much she was watching on her own." Though my kids are long past the 3-5 year-old stage, I could, realistically, say the same thing as that mom, maybe not of television but of all their digital devices. This study reminds me how little room there is in the life of a child -- of any age -- for auto-pilot parenting.