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Kim Painter, Special for USA TODAY
Most parents of young children are not very concerned about their use of TV, computers, tablets and other media - maybe because kids who spend the most time looking at screens have parents who are heavy users, too, a new survey suggests.
Contrary to popular belief, "we generally found that media use is not a source of conflict in the home" at least for parents and kids up to age 8, says Ellen Wartella, a researcher from Northwestern University whose report will be presented today at a conference in Washington.
Instead, the nationwide survey of 2,326 parents shows they set the pace for media use and young kids follow - often with screen habits frowned upon by child development experts. The survey did not include parents of older children or teens.
Nearly 8 in 10 parents said their children's media use was not a source of family conflict; 55% said they were "not too" or "not at all" concerned about it, while 30% said they were concerned. Parents also had more positive than negative views on how TV, computers and mobile devices affect children's learning and creativity.
There were some qualms: Most saw those technologies as bad for physical activity and most agreed that video games are bad for learning, creativity and physical activity.
One surprise to the researchers: Parents said books, toys, activities and the old media warhorse, TV, remain popular tools for rewarding or diverting children - much more so than new smart phones and tablets. Just 37% who have mobile devices say they use them to keep kids busy vs. 78% for TV.
But families are not alike and the survey found three distinct patterns:
• Media-centric families (39% of the sample), in which parents used electronic media for an average of 11 hours a day and children averaged 4.5 hours. These families were most likely to leave TVs on most of the time (48%) and put TVs in children's rooms (44%).
• Media-moderate families (45%), in which parents used media nearly five hours a day and children were plugged in for nearly three hours.
• Media-light families (16%), in which parents averaged less than two hours and children averaged about 1.5 hours of screen time each day.
"Parents set the family style," Wartell says. "Children are not the driving force here."
The survey did not look at how media use affected children. But the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for children under age 2 and recommends no more than two hours of "high quality" content a day for older children. It frowns upon putting TVs in children's rooms. Excessive media use is linked to obesity and problems with attention, sleep and school, the group says.
Previous surveys have found many families don't follow that advice, so the new findings are not surprising, says Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician and spokeswoman for the academy.
"People look at the recommendations and ask 'Are you out of touch with reality?' The answer is no, but somebody has to say something," she says. "We are trying to provide evidence-based recommendations to help parents make choices."
It is true, she says, that there's no research on how the latest forms of interactive media affect young children.
The new findings suggest many of today's parents have chosen a media-heavy family life and feel fine about it, Wartell says.
"I do think we are seeing a generational shift."