April 5, 2004 -- Tempting as it might be to do so, using the television to "baby-sit" 1- to 3-year-olds increases the possibility that the baby will have attention problems in school, according to results of a new study of more than 2,500 children.
Child development experts have been worried about kids and TV for decades and the American Academy of Pediatrics is already on record in favor of limiting toddler TV time, but the study from researchers at the University of Washington Child Health Institute in Seattle offers the first scientific evidence linking television exposure to attention problems. Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH, tells WebMD that a 3-year-old who watches TV for two hours a day "has a 20% increased risk for attention problems at age 7 compared with a child who doesn't watch any TV."
Christakis says that the risk increases as TV watching increases so that "for each additional hour of television watched, the risk is increased by almost 10%."
Moreover, he says that the TV may increase the risk for attentional problems because television images change rapidly, "which is an important contrast to the pace of real life," he says. He notes that even some well-respected children's programs - such as Sesame Street -- are specifically designed to rely on rapid fire images to keep a young child's attention.
In the study Christakis and colleagues used data collected from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. The survey collects data on family background, home environment, and health. Mothers were asked to estimate television watching time on a typical weekday. Television data were available for 1,278 children at age 1 and 1,345 children at age 3, and data were collected again for both groups at age 7. The researchers used a measurement tool called the Behavioral Problems Index to identify children who had attention problems such as difficulty concentrating, being easily distracted, impulsiveness, or restlessness. He says that about 10% of the children had attention problems by age 7.
Megan Fox says many parents "start out with pretty strict rules about TV." Fox, who is a stay-at-home mom with four children, tells WebMD that her oldest daughter Sarah, now a third-grade student in Lakewood, Ohio, "watched no TV." But the television rules softened somewhat when Sarah was joined by Michael, age 8 and Anna, who will be 5 in August. When baby Jack arrived two years ago, Megan decided that sometimes she had to "turn on the TV so that I could get something done." Now, she says, Jack probably sees about an hour of TV a day.
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Use Caution With Kids Under Age 2
Susan Buttross, MD, FAAP, who is a professor of pediatrics and chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Mississippi in Jackson tells WebMD that Fox is probably pretty typical of most parents. "We don't want to make any parent feel guilty," says Buttross who is also a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The fact is that younger children in families are going to be exposed to TV."
But Buttross says the study by Christakis backs up the American Academy of Pediatrics statement on television, which urges parents to "exercise caution in letting children under age 2 watch television."
Buttross says that TV poses a problem because it is "a passive situation. If a child is looking at the TV and the child says a word or phrase to the TV, nobody reinforces that act." That reinforcement is crucial for children under age 3, says Buttross, because "so much speech and developmental behavior is learned during this period."
She says, too, that Christakis is probably on the right track with his concerns about the detrimental effect of rapid images. Buttross, who wasn't involved in the study, says that "parents tell me again and again that they can't understand how their children can spend hours playing a video game, yet those same children can't concentrate enough to read a book. But if you think about it, the attention needed to play a video is about three to five seconds, because then the situation changes." Buttross was not involved with the study.
Meanwhile, Christakis, who is the father of two children, aged 6 and 3, and a believer in the value of life without TV, says he decided to study television after seeing first-hand how television could captivate even a very young child. "[When my son] was just 3 months old, I had him in my arms in a store where TVs were on. I noticed that he just couldn't take his eyes off the screen."