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Too much TV for toddlers may take a toll tomorrow

Consumer Reports News: May 13, 2010 11:15 AM

It is 5:15, and everyone is in their usual spot—I'm working at my computer, my husband is in the kitchen fixing dinner, and the kids are in the living room watching Curious George, having just finished an episode of Ruff Ruffman. Up next is the Electric Company, which will bring their nightly TV viewing to a solid hour and a half.

Does it bother me that my kids watch this much TV most nights? Some. Would I prefer they were playing, drawing, or reading instead? Most definitely. But I also know this end-of-day downtime is something they look forward to, and it provides a chance for their parents to get some things done before the family reconvenes for the evening meal. Also, their TV allotment is still below the two-hour limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)* for kids ages 2 and older. So no harm done, right?

Perhaps. But perhaps not—at least in respect to my 2 1/2 year old. A new study suggests that each additional hour of TV a toddler watches per week, the more difficulty he or she may have with math, bullying, and overall engagement in the classroom at age 10. The study also found that watching more TV at an early age may engender habits that lead to a less active lifestyle and poorer diet.

The researchers gathered data on 1,314 children born in Quebec, Canada, between 1997 and 1998. Parents recorded how much TV their child watched at age 29 months. Teachers and parents then filled out questionnaires evaluating each child's school performance, social and emotional behavior, and health habits at age 10.

The results were striking. For every extra hour of TV watched per week at 29 months, children at age 10 had:

  • A 7 percent decrease in classroom attention
  • A 6 percent drop in math skills (but no drop in reading skills)
  • A 10 percent increase in bullying and other types of ill-treatment by classmates
  • A 9 percent decrease in overall physical activity
  • A 16 percent decrease in fruit and vegetable consumption
  • A 9 percent increase in soft drink consumption, and a 10 percent increase in snacking on sugary foods
  • A 5 percent increase in body mass index (a measurement used to assess whether someone is overweight).

Although it's not clear how early TV viewing might set the stage for such problems years later, the researchers offer a few theories. For example, hours spent passively watching a screen at a young age may do little to prepare children for active participation and attention in the classroom, or positive interactions with their peers. And habits formed early—such as spending long stretches in front of the TV, inactive and possibly snacking—can be hard to break later on.

Still, this a lot to pin on early TV viewing, and the study wasn't without problems. First, these findings are based almost entirely on parents' and teachers' responses to questionnaires. A better approach would have used some objective tools as well, such as standardized tests to assess math and reading skills.

More importantly, this type of research can't show cause and effect. So we can't be certain that TV viewing, and not some other factors, led to these problems. The researchers did take into account several variables that might have affected their results, but they missed some important ones, such as family income.

Nonetheless, this isn't the first study to suggest that TV viewing isn't good for young minds and bodies (for an example, see Tots' TV time tied to asthma risk.) And common sense suggests that more time spent watching TV can mean less time playing, reading stories, and doing other activities that encourage a young child's mental, physical, and social development.

What you need to know. We need more research to understand exactly how early TV viewing might be linked to future problems with school, peers, diet, and physical activity. It's also not clear how these findings relate to the AAP's guidelines for TV viewing, as most of the children in the study actually watched less than the AAP's limit of two hours a day (incidentally, the AAP advises that children under age 2 watch no television).

Still, the study provides a good reminder to keep children's TV viewing in check, and to consider turning off the TV sometimes in favor of other activities. Although TV's effect on young children isn't fully understood, we do know that time spent talking, playing, and engaging with an attentive adult or another child is time well spent.

Sophie Ramsey, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

*links to PDF

Aaron Bailey

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