Washington Study after study shows that before age 2, youngsters don't get much out of TV - they learn best from the people around them.
Parents seem to disagree. And what do their tots learn? Sometimes amusing things, like the 15-month-old whose mom heard her hum the McDonald's jingle - "ba, ba, boppa, ba" - every time they drove past the Golden Arches.
So says a study released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found eight in 10 of the nation's youngest children - babies through age 6 - watch TV, play video games or use the computer for about two hours on a typical day.
A third live in homes where the TV is on most of the time. Even for the smallest, TV in the bedroom isn't too rare: 19 percent of babies under 2 have one, despite urging from the American Academy of Pediatrics that youngsters not watch any television at that age.
"My reasoning was that my little boy was extremely intelligent since birth. At 1 year old, he was putting his own DVDs in, skipping scenes," one mother of a preschooler told Kaiser researchers. "I thought it was a real good thing for him to have his own TV because TV helped him grow at a very young age."
The number of youngsters glued to the screen hasn't changed much since the foundation's first report on the topic in 2003.
But in Wednesday's follow-up, Kaiser asked parents - in a survey and in focus-group sessions - why they and their children use TV and other electronic media the way they do.
"I had this sense of kids clamoring to use media and parents trying to keep their finger in the dam," lead researcher Victoria Rideout said. "I found that not to be a very accurate picture in most cases."
Instead, a generation of parents raised on TV is largely encouraging the early use of television, video games and computers by their own children.
These parents say TV and computer games teach how to share and the ABCs when they don't have the time. Television provides time for parents to cook or take a shower. They use screen time as a reward or, paradoxically, to help kids wind down at bedtime.
"There's this enthusiasm and tremendous lack of concern" about media use, Rideout said.
Where some parents limited scary shows or video games, others found youngsters unfazed. "It's something gory, but it doesn't seem to bother her," said a California mother whose toddler joined her on the couch for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."
Another mother told Kaiser she stopped watching "ER" reruns when her preschooler tried to give her little brother CPR.
"What is the impact on little kids of watching shows like 'CSI' or 'ER'?" asked Rideout. "I don't think we know the answer to that. I don't know that people really realized that kind of viewing was going on to the degree I think it is."
The report by the California-based foundation, which analyzes health care issues, comes at a time of great debate about youngsters' use of TV and other multimedia. Just last week, specialists called together by the National Institutes of Health urged more research on how electronic media affect children at different ages.
The pediatrics group recommends no TV or other electronic media for kids younger than 2 - advice that just 26 percent of parents followed, Kaiser found - and no more than two hours of total "screen time" daily for older children.
The organization is not anti-TV, said Dr. Daniel Broughton of the Mayo Clinic, who co-wrote the academy's recommendations. But before age 2 is time of the brain's most rapid development, and interaction - live give-and-take that TV cannot provide - is crucial during that period, he said.
Some studies also link TV watching at younger ages to attention disorders.
After age 2, the idea is to balance a little TV with riding bikes, playing with friends, household chores and the other activities of childhood, Broughton said.
Media should be used more wisely than as a babysitter, added Dr. Dimitri Christakas of the University of Washington.
"People have made dinner for millennia, but we've only had television for 50 years," he said. "Television's not inherently good or bad. ... The real goal now has to be not to de-technologize childhood, but how to optimize children's experiences" with it.
In addition to the focus groups, the Kaiser report is based on results of a national, random telephone survey last fall of 1,051 parents of children 6 months to 6 years. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.