Pagani’s study is merely the latest to call attention to the drawbacks of childhood TV-watching. A number of studies have linked too much TV to a range of negative effects in kids, including shorter attention spans, slower language acquisition, increased aggression, and weight gain. Experts have suggested several possible explanations for these findings.
One theory is that time spent in front of the tube is time that could be spent on more enriching activities. As Dr. Jeffrey Brosco, M.D., a professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, puts it, “Every hour that you’re watching TV, you’re not talking to someone, not playing a game, not building something with your blocks.” Too much TV linked to earlier death Another theory is that the act of watching television can harm developing brains.
A child’s brain triples in size within the first three years of life in response to external stimulation, says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and the country’s foremost expert on the health effects of TV in childhood. “Early exposure to [television] can actually be over-stimulating for the developing brain, and that can lead to shorter attention spans [and] cognitive difficulties,” says Christakis, the author of “The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids.”
The rapid edits and quick sequences found in many of today’s TV shows may be especially harmful in this respect, Christakis adds. “The hypothesis we have is that this conditions the mind to expect high levels of input, and by comparison, reality is boring — it doesn’t happen fast enough,” he says. Yet another possibility is that the negative effects of TV that have been reported in studies are in fact a symptom of broader family and household dynamics. In the new study, for instance, the children whose mothers were less educated and children from single-parent families tended to watch more television. Although Pagani and her colleagues controlled for these and other factors in their analysis, household habits can shape studies like this in ways that can be difficult to tease out.
Make play areas greener and safer for kids “It’s always possible that what you’re measuring is not TV itself, but families that are more likely to let their kids watch TV versus families that don’t want them to watch TV, or maternal education,” says Brosco. “No one really understands what the effects of TV truly are, but so many studies–like this [one]–suggest TV is just plain bad for you.”
Some TV shows are better than others. Watching television isn’t necessarily harmful, however, and it doesn’t have to be a mindless activity, says Christakis. He points out that Pagani and her colleagues did not ask about the specific programming that kids watched, which may weaken the findings. “The results of this study probably in some ways misrepresent the reality,” Christakis says. “Studies that we’ve done find that what kids watch–and how they watch–is as important as how much they watch.” Christakis believes that children should watch no more than an hour of television a day at any age. But, he says, parents should distinguish between mind-numbing cartoons and educational programs such as Sesame Street. However, it is worth noting the source here states children watch the least amount of television of any age group.
“Parents need to know that the best-quality shows have a curriculum,” he says. “They’re trying to teach your child something, anything from the letter k to skills like how to share or how to handle a conflict.” According to Christakis, the best way for young children to watch TV is with a parent. This allows parents to use potentially negative content (such as violence or advertising) as a learning experience, and also provides an opportunity to engage with the children and reinforce the message of educational shows.