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The latest figures from Nielsen have children’s TV usage at an eight-year high. Children’s health advocates warn of adverse effects.

Reporting from New York – More than an entire day — that’s how long children sit in front of the television in an average week, according to new findings released Monday by Nielsen.

The amount of television usage by children reached an eight-year high, with kids ages 2 to 5 watching the screen for more than 32 hours a week on average and those ages 6 to 11 watching more than 28 hours. The analysis, based on the fourth quarter of 2008, measured children’s consumption of live and recorded TV, as well as VCR and game console usage.

“They’re using all the technology available in their households,” said Patricia McDonough, Nielsen’s senior vice president of insights, analysis and policy. “They’re using the DVD, they’re on the Internet. They’re not giving up any media — they’re just picking up more.”

The increase in consumption is in part the result of more programming targeted at kids, she said, including video on demand, which is particularly popular among young children who like to watch their favorite shows over and over again.

“When I was a kid, I had Saturday morning cartoons,” McDonough said. “And now there are programs they want to watch available to them whenever they want to watch them.”

The findings alarmed children’s health advocates, who warned that increased television watching is linked to delayed language skills and obesity. A 2007 study by researchers at the University of Washington found that babies who watched videos geared to them learned fewer vocabulary words than infants who never watched the videos.

When kids are plunked in front of a screen, they’re also missing out on critical opportunities to learn from their parents and develop imaginative play, experts said.

“I think parents are clueless about how much media their kids are using and what they’re watching,” said Dr. Vic Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s harmless entertainment,” said Strasburger, who has written extensively about the effects of media on children. “Media are one of the most powerful teachers of children that we know of. When we in this society do a bad job of educating kids about sex and drugs, the media pick up the slack.”

The academy recommends no screen time for children younger than 2 and less than an hour or two for those older than 2.

“There are some extraordinarily good media for kids,” he said. “But even the best — ‘Sesame Street’ for 5-year-olds — kids shouldn’t be watching five hours a day. They should be outside playing. They should be having books read to them.”

The new data from Nielsen comes on the heels of the news that the Walt Disney Co. expanded its refund offer for its “Baby Einstein” videos after pressure from the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which complained to the Federal Trade Commission about claims that the videos are educational. On Monday, Susan McLain, general manager of the Baby Einstein Company, issued a statement saying the company does not make such claims and that the refund offer is not an admission that the company misled parents in its marketing.

Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said the way infants are exposed to media shapes their future relationship with television.

“Once you start hooking babies on media, it’s harder to limit it,” she said. “If we start children early in life on a steady diet of screen time and electronic toys, they don’t develop the resources to generate their own amusement, so they become dependent on screens.”

Networks that program specifically for children discounted the potential negative effects from the report’s findings.

“Our programming for 2- to 5-year-olds is totally educational programming, and has been widely praised by advocates, widely praised by educators,” said Dan Martinsen, a spokesman for Nickelodeon, the network behind such popular kids’ shows as “Dora the Explorer,” “Wonder Pets,” and “Blue’s Clues.”

Kids ages 2 to 5 spent an average of 3 hours and 47 minutes a day watching television in the fourth quarter of 2008, up from 3 hours and 40 minutes in the fourth quarter of 2007, according to Nielsen. Older children watched an average of 3 hours and 20 minutes a day, up from 3 hours and 17 minutes.

In 2008, children spent 97% of their screen time watching live TV, although those ages 2 to 5 are increasingly watching shows through digital video recorders or DVDs. Younger kids also watch more commercials in playback mode, viewing 50% of ads, compared with the 44% watched by children ages 6 to 11. The data is based on Nielsen’s national sample, which includes 6,700 kids ages 2 to 11.