The Truth About TV and ADHD

Does watching too much TV put kids at risk for ADHD? What about educational games on the iPad? The American Academy of Pediatrics' newest recommendations regarding screen time reflect a shift in culture — and in medical research.

The Truth About TV & ADD, Part 2

For older kids, the task is trickier. Though the Academy has not issued specific TV-viewing recommendations for children with ADD, James M. Perrin, M.D., an associate professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of pediatrics at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, says, "Given how distracting television is, it's very hard to believe that it's good for kids with AD/HD to watch much of it."

Bye-Bye, Tube Time

You may curtail your child's viewing time gradually, but the ultimate goal should be no more than one or two hours a day. Include TV, video and DVD viewing, video game play, and computer use in your calculations - and enforce your rules. Using a timer can help. To ease the adjustment, offer alternatives: Take your kids swimming, go skating together, invite neighborhood kids over for touch football, or encourage your child to take up a hobby or a musical instrument.

Involve your child in setting up the family's TV schedule. Have her select a few favorite programs and plan them as an activity. If they are broadcast in the mid-afternoon, consider recording them to watch on weekends. Discourage mindless channel surfing. (Consider ditching the remote altogether and putting the cable box up high.) Enforce your rules, such as, No TV until homework is finished.

Assess your own TV habits as well, and keep the TV off until you want to watch a specific program. Never leave it on as background noise. If a program isn't worth your undivided attention, turn it off. "TV is not a white noise that you can easily ignore," Dr. Perrin says. "Eliminating distractions is an important aspect of treating ADD. These children need a quiet space."

It's Show Time

Remember that what your child watches matters as much as the amount of time he spends in front of a screen. Dr. Perrin recommends shows that tell a story over the course of at least five to 10 minutes. These include science and nature programs, such as Nova, and educational videos, which, of course, have no commercial disruptions. Avoid programs with jarring special effects. Whenever possible, make TV time an interactive experience. Watch with your child and ask questions about the action to help him become a more active, discriminating viewer. Don't permit your child to have a personal television set in his bedroom.

If you have children of different ages, you face a special challenge. An older child is unlikely to give up watching her favorite shows for the sake of a younger sibling. Be especially vigilant about the time each child spends in front of the TV, as well as the content of what he's watching. To manage the TV viewing in his home, Dr. Patrick Kilcarr, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., put a set in the basement for his teenage sons. (Three of his five children have ADD.) The basement set is off-limits to the younger kids. They're not allowed in the basement without asking, and the older sons are expected to help enforce the rules. The upstairs TV is programmed to permit only Nickelodeon or the History Channel on Saturdays, and his teens risk being grounded if they switch that TV to channels that are not appropriate for the little ones.

Bonus TV Time

Using TV as a reward is another gray area. Most experts believe that television time can be a legitimate payoff for a child who's doing his homework, avoiding trouble at school, and sticking to his schedule. As Kilcarr says, "TV has a place in the hierarchy of a child's life." Kids simply need to realize that there's a time and place for TV, rather than seeing it as a source of constant entertainment. Kilcarr, for instance, allows his children to watch a half-hour of TV or a video in the evening, once they've finished their homework and sports practice. However, TV shouldn't be the only kind of reward. Offer alternatives: an hour at the skateboard park, a walk together to get an ice cream, or a new book.

Minimizing TV time increases a parent's responsibility to devise other activities. This is tough for those juggling jobs, two or more children, or the zillion other daily tasks that make life the pressure cooker it can be. But Kilcarr sees a developmental advantage in cutting out TV: Children get the chance to use time on their own. Getting to this point may take a while and it may require some prodding, but, ultimately, your child will develop ways to entertain himself. Everyone benefits.

As ADD awareness increases and research into the effects of television on children progresses, experts may indeed find more definitive links. In the meantime, it's essential to exercise caution where television and kids are concerned. You may be surprised at just how little your children really miss the TV if you help them fill their time with more interesting activities that speak to their passions.

This article comes from the February/March 2005 issue of ADDitude.

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TAGS: ADHD, TV, and Video Games, ADHD Causes

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