Television viewing by young children may lead to an increase in attention problems when they reach school age, according to a study in the April issue of Pediatrics.
Each hour of television watched on a daily basis at 1 and 3 years of age increases by 10 percent the risk they will have attention problems, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, by the time they reach age 7, the study says.
Experts say the new study supports a previous recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which publishes Pediatrics, that parents avoid letting children under age 2 watch television out of concern for how it might affect their development.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, one of the most common behavioral disorders encountered by educators, affects anywhere from 4 percent to 12 percent of school-age children in the United States, according to estimates.
“This study suggests that there is a significant and important association between early exposure to television and subsequent attentional problems,” Dimitri A. Christakis, the study’s lead author and a researcher at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, said in a statement. “There is a tremendous and growing reliance on television for a variety of reasons. However, parents should be advised to limit their young child’s television viewing.”
Researchers looked at data from 1,278 children at age 1 and 1,345 children at age 3 who previously participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, a federally sponsored health survey. Parents reported their children’s early TV-viewing habits and rated their behavior at age 7.
Ten percent of the children had attention problems by age 7, the researchers say, a proportion consistent with estimated rates of ADHD nationally. But the study lacks information on whether the children were formally diagnosed with ADHD.
The children studied watched an average of 2.2 hours of television a day at age 1 and 3.6 hours a week at age 3, the study says.
“In contrast to the pace with which real life unfolds and is experienced by young children, television can portray rapidly changing images, scenery, and events,"the researchers write in “Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children.”
“It can be overstimulating yet extremely interesting,” the authors say.
But one ADHD expert said the study had flaws.
“This study raises certain questions and concerns about television viewing during early years,” said Andrew Adesman, the director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New York City.
“They are reporting attention problems from the perspective of parents,” he said of the researchers. “We do need to remember there is a difference between parents and a clinical diagnosis.”
‘Sesame Street’ Different?
Dr. Adesman said the study also did not examine the kinds of TV programs viewed by the children.
“The study was purely looking from a quantitative standpoint, not a qualitative programming standpoint,” he said. “‘Sesame Street’ versus cartoons is a different story.”
David Bittler, a spokesman for Nickelodeon, the cable-television channel geared to young children, said the study did not consider that certain shows are developed with the developmental needs of young children in mind.
He said the host of “Blues Clues,” a popular show for 2- to 5-year-olds, for instance, blinks his eyes and turns his head away from the camera very slowly during the show so as not to overstimulate young viewers.
“Adults have described the pace as excruciatingly slow,” Mr. Bittler said. “We are not discounting the study. It just doesn’t take into account specific kinds of programming.”
In an editorial in the same issue of Pediatrics, educational psychologist Jane M. Healy called the study “important and long overdue.”
She noted that the pediatrics academy recommends no TV for children younger than 2, and no more than one to two hours daily of high-quality TV or video for older children. Yet a study last year by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 43 percent of children age 2 or younger watched TV every day, and that 26 percent of youngsters in that age group had a TV in their bedrooms.
The academy’s message “is not hitting the target,” Ms. Healy writes.