Young children who watch more than two hours a day of television show decreased skills in math and executive functioning—the collective term for cognitive abilities related to attention, focus, and self-control—with low-income children faring the worst compared to children from higher-income families who viewed the same amount of TV.
The study was published online in February by the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. The association between television viewing and a child’s math and executive functioning skills was highest for children in families earning at or below about $21,200 a year, which was the poverty line at the time the data was collected about 8 years ago.The effects on middle-income children, which in this study was defined as an average of $74,200 in earnings annually for a family of four, were smaller than for less-affluent children, but statistically significant. But no effect on school readiness was noted on television-watching children who came from families earning at or above $127,200 a year, according to the research.
The study did not find any effect on preliteracy skills for children, regardless of their parents’ income. And watching more than two hours of television appeared to be the tipping point when the effects were most apparent. In guidelines released last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children ages 2 to 5 should be watch no more than one hour a day of “high quality” programming, such as “Sesame Street.”
The findings are based on a group of 5-year-olds in Massachusetts who were recruited for a kindergarten intervention in the fall of 2008 and 2009. Notably, the children were recruited before the invention of the iPad, which hit the market in 2010. This study captures only the hours spent passively viewing television—it does not measure the hours spent listening to television in the background, or time that children spent using electronic games or on interactive screen-based technologies. The study also does not capture the content of the television that children were watching.
The study asked parents to report how many hours their children spent watching television, and the children were given a battery of tests measuring their literacy, math, and executive functioning skills.
Andrew Ribner, a doctoral student at New York University and the lead author of the study, said that one surprising result was that children from more affluent families seemed not to have any measurable deficits that could be connected to television watching. Because the families did not report what the children were watching, this study could not test these hypotheses, but Ribner said one factor in these results could be that children in more affluent households were watching more age-appropriate, educational programming. Another hypothesis is that adults in more affluent household engaging more often with children as they watched television, he said.
Ribner said the findings suggest that parents should not worry too much about occasional viewing of age-appropriate programming, but should be mindful of how much television their children may be watching.
“Children just shouldn’t be watching a lot of television, but a little bit is OK,” he said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.