May 26, 2018
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Parents letting toddlers watch too much TV, research shows

Michelle Pelletier | BDN
Michelle Pelletier | BDN
By Tom Walsh, BDN Staff

Zero. Zip. Nada. None.

That’s the number of hours a day pediatricians recommend that children under age two spend in front of a television screen or a computer monitor. But research shows parents aren’t following that advice.

Since 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children under age two not watch any television, while older children should be limited to one or two hours a day of educational programming.

In a typical day, 59 percent of all children under age two watch TV, and 42 percent watch a video or DVD, spending an average of two hours and five minutes every day in front of a screen, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The study’s survey of parents showed that 43 percent of all children under age two watch TV every day, and one in four has a TV in the bedroom.

Only one child in four has never watched TV before age two.

For years, pediatricians have linked TV to increased aggression and obesity in children. More recently, they’ve added to their concerns susceptibility to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The Kaiser study noted that ADHD affects 12 percent of American schoolchildren and has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. Studies show ADHD increased with the introduction of television targeted at children in the 1950s and spiked 30 years later, when VCRs became commonplace.

While ADHD is known to have a genetic component, the Kaiser study suggests that an environmental trigger is at play — toddlers watching TV.

“The problem with using media to entertain kids is what they are not doing instead,” said Deborah Loftus, a developmental psychologist who evaluates children and adolescents in her private practice in Ellsworth. “Interacting with adults and experiencing the world through whatever sensory abilities they have is critical in terms of stimulating the parts of the brain that are developing in infants and toddlers.

“Media taps into only a few of the neural pathways that are essential to cognitive functioning,” Loftus said. “Sitting passively and watching is not an adequate substitute for what children need. No matter how good the media is, it’s not the same as a child interacting with the real world.”

One study of more than 2,000 children found that for every hour of TV watched at age one and three, children were almost 10 percent more likely to develop attention problems that could be diagnosed as ADHD by age seven. That means a toddler watching three hours of television daily has nearly a 30 percent higher chance of having attention problems in school.

“The level of stimulation that children become used to with television or video games makes the level of stimulation in school pale by comparison,” Loftus said. “This high level of stimulation develops in the first six years of their lives, before schools attempt to manage their attention.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that children of all ages spend an average of seven hours a day interacting with entertainment media, including televisions, computers, phones and other electronic devices.

“It’s a rare family that limits TV exposure,” Loftus said. “And I absolutely believe the research that shows that media exposure impacts levels of stimulation. The brainwaves used for playing a video game are far different than those used to do homework.”

Loftus endorses isolating children under age two from exposure to electronic media, be it television or iPads.

“Children need to be interactive with the real world, and up to age three is a very important exploratory and growth time,” she said. “And what they see on TV they personalize into their own world. In that sense, the evening news is one of the most violent things [young children] can experience. What they see on TV is real to them, despite mom and dad telling them ‘that’s not real.’”

Loftus said the impact of electronic media on children can begin even before birth.

“It’s been shown that expectant mothers who play extremely violent video games or watch violent TV shows affect the nervous systems of their babies,” she said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit screen time and offer alternative nonelectronic forms of media such as books, newspapers and board games.

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