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Toddler TV Viewing Can Lead to Problems Paying Attention


Television conveys rapidly changing scenes. While the adult mind is accustomed to the difference between reality and television, a child's mind may expect similarities between what happens on the TV screen and what goes on in reality.

Three-year-old Isaac D. Lamont watches Saturday morning cartoons on a television at home.

A UW study found that early television exposure is associated with attentional problems at age 7. The study was published in the April 2004 edition of Pediatrics and was led by Dimitri Christakis, associate professor of pediatrics and director of the Child Health Institute.

Using a nationally representative longitudinal sample, researchers examined TV viewing habits in children at age 1 and at age 3. They chose these two ages because they precede the age at which attentional problems are typically manifested or diagnosed and because television viewing at such young ages is controversial and discouraged.

During the first few years of life, the brain develops quickly. Synapses in the brain are forming in response to the environment. This environment will affect the number and the density of these neural synapses. Early visual and auditory experiences can shape a child's attention span later in life.

Most TV programs have a speedy change of images displayed on the screen. If children are exposed to this fast-paced programming in the first few years of life, their brain may expect the same fast-paced education in the classroom. Sesame Street has slowed down the pacing of its episodes because of this concern. At one time, the show contained 30 to 50 storylines in one hour.

Shows like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which have a gentler pace, may not be as detrimental to a child's attention span later on. Further studies will need to be done to see if slower paced shows do, in fact, pose a threat. However, Christakis hypothesizes that slower paced shows would not cause attentional problems later in life. This particular study did not examine the content of the programming, only hours watched.

According to the study, the degree of attentional problems increases 10 percent with each additional hour watched per day. This means that a child watching two hours of television each day before age 3 is 20 percent more likely to have attentional problems at age 7 than a child who doesn't watch any television.