If you're like a lot of parents, you've probably used your television as a baby-sitter. Anxious to grab a few moments to fix dinner, straighten up, or take a breather, you've turned to the flashy colors and graphics of SpongeBob or Rugrats to mesmerize your child.
The reliance on TV as nanny starts early. Typical 1-year-olds watch an average of two hours a day. Three-year-olds absorb three hours of tube time daily, and by the time they're of school age, 30 percent of U.S. children have a television in their room.
For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has urged parents to eliminate all TV viewing for tots under age 2 and to limit screen time (including computer use) for older kids to no more than an hour or two a day. Too much TV can negatively affect brain development, AAP doctors fear, especially in babies, whose brains are growing rapidly. Still, researchers have never established a causal link between TV viewing and attention span.
As reported in the journal Pediatrics in April 2004, researchers at Children's Hospital in Seattle found that the more television a child watches between the ages of 1 and 3, the greater his or her likelihood of developing attention problems by age 7. More specifically, for each extra hour per day of TV time, the risk of concentration difficulties increases by 10 percent, compared with that of a child who views no TV at all. Excessive viewing was associated with a 28 percent increase in attention problems.
Anxious for Answers
Understandably, the study unleashed a firestorm of controversy. Parents of kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) worried: Should they beat themselves up over all those episodes of Dora the Explorer? Does TV-viewing cause ADHD? Should they allow their kids to watch TV at all? Sorting out the answers requires a closer look at the study itself and what it did and didn't prove.
The lead researcher, Dimitri Christakis, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and co-director of the school's Institute for Child Health, admits that his study was limited. He based his research on a previous survey of about 1,300 mothers who recalled the television habits of their children in early childhood. Such after-the-fact reporting is considered highly fallible because parents often over- or underreport the amount of TV watched.
What's more, the study linked TV viewing to general attention problems, rather than to diagnosed ADHD. Study participants were never asked whether their children had Attention Deficit Disorder. Instead, the study looked at five kinds of attention difficulties, including "obsessive concerns" and "confusion," neither of which are core ADHD symptoms.
Nor did the study consider the kinds of programs children watched. Educational programs, such as Blue's Clues or Mr. Rogers, which have a slower pace, rely on storytelling, and avoid rapid zooms, abrupt cuts, and jarring noises, weren't differentiated from more aggressive programming. Neither did the researchers consider whether TV viewing and attention difficulties presented a chicken-or-egg situation. Some critics suggest that younger children with pre-existing attention deficits may be drawn to watching TV, while solving simple puzzles or concentrating on games would be an uphill battle. They add that parents of these children might turn to the TV for relief more frequently than parents of kids who have less trouble staying focused.
The bottom line: Cancel the guilt trip. Plenty of kids who watch little or no TV are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, and an abundance of evidence points to a genetic connection. The researchers themselves stated that, based on their findings, TV does not cause ADHD.
The Brain Drain
Still, their work is a wake-up call. According to Dr. Christakis, the rapidly moving images on TV and in video games may rewire the brains of very young children, making it difficult for them to focus on slower tasks that require more thought. Others say that TV may, at least temporarily, idle the centers in the pre-frontal cortex that are responsible for organizing, planning, and sequencing thought.
So where does this leave parents? The answer, of course, is that we need to set reasonable limits. Stick as closely as possible to the AAP guidelines. Avoid TV — to the extent possible — for children 2 years old and younger. Remember that their brains develop better through human interaction rather than through passive activity. Read together, sing songs, play games. If your toddler is in day care, make sure the television isn't a constant presence there either.