Like many seven-year-olds, Benjamin Colson of Washington has a favorite movie.
"I would say I've seen Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius 1,000 times," he says. "It's really, really, really, really, really, really complicated. I can't tell you all the details, but I understand the whole thing."
He likes the movie so much that he's memorized it. He likes it so much that he discovered the freeze mechanism on the VCR to watch it frame by frame. ("I did not know we had that feature," says his mother, Karen Paul.) He likes it so much that lines from the movie have entered the family's vernacular.
If you have a child, chances are you know about this desire to watch the same video endlessly. You think maybe you should worry about the effects of four-score viewings of Shrek or Toy Story or The Little Mermaid. (If you looked into your kid's brain, would Ariel and her decolletage be taking up the space where math is supposed to be?)
From picture books to nursery rhymes, kids have always loved repetition. Today, toddlers take it for granted that they can pop in their favorite tape -- or now DVD -- and watch a movie over and over. They can even make their own version of the movie -- repeating a funny scene, then skipping a scary one. But this capability required a new technology, the VCR, which became widely used in American homes in the 1980s. When VCRs first came out, it was thought that videos were strictly a rental item -- who except a fanatic film buff or someone in the industry would want to own these things? Then parents, seeing they were depleting their children's college funds to rent Beauty and the Beast for the 50th time, began buying videos.
"We started to discover right away that the family video business was not a niche business," said Ann Daly, who oversees feature animation and video at DreamWorks and previously ran Disney's video division. "It was not the tail wagging the dog. It was the dog."
Or the lion. The biggest-selling video of all time is the Disney movie The Lion King, with more than 30 million bought, according to Video Business magazine. Current best sellers include The Jungle Book 2 and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. When today's animated hit, Finding Nemo, makes it to videotape and DVD, it will surely enter the pantheon of the endlessly watched. After all, a movie doesn't sell US$277 million in tickets in five weeks without children enlisting any available adult to take them to the theater again and again.
There has been little hard research into the effect on children of viewing videos to wretched excess. Parents have been told to limit the time their kids face a screen. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero television viewing for children younger than 2, and no more than an hour or two a day for children older than that, to avoid insidious messages about violence, sex and gender roles and because the doctors think that there are better things to do.
But other experts on children's development, and those who have done the few empirical studies, say the repeat syndrome appears mostly benign. As long as a child isn't exhibiting any warning signs -- nightmares, anti-social behavior, obsessive thoughts -- watching a favorite movie ad infinitum can actually be good, researchers say. A favorite video can bring the same comfort and deeper understanding that comes from having a beloved book read over and over.