Forget baseball, it turns out that watching TV is America’s true national pastime. According to the 2007 findings of the American Time Use Survey, recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American men and women spend about half of their free time watching television. And, although this particular survey only included adults, more and more research suggests that our nation’s children are following in their parents footsteps.

As studies cited by the American Academy of Pediatrics show, our kids watch television for an average of three hours everyday. If DVDs, videotapes, and video games are included in the count, the numbers jump dramatically. The average American child puts in six hours and thirty-two minutes of “screen time” each day. For the children of this country, media use has nearly become a full-time job.

The AAP’s Take on Children and TV
In their 2001 policy statement on Children, Adolescents, and Television, the American Academy of Pediatrics discusses two broad problems with these staggering numbers. The first problem is the sheer amount of time spent on television and other media use. Of course, there are only so many hours in the day and an hour spent watching TV is one that isn’t spent playing with friends or reading with parents.

The second problem is content. The AAP acknowledges that some programming can be educational and tends to be especially effective when used to teach positive social behaviors like manners. At the same time, however, it recognizes that much of the programming children watch on a daily basis is not appropriate and can potentially harm young viewers. A wide range of recent studies have drawn connections between television programming and violent behavior, attention problems, negative body image and obesity, poor academic performance, drug and alcohol abuse, and unhealthy perceptions of sexuality.

Many of these studies have been extremely useful, helping the AAP set clear guidelines about healthy television and media consumption for children. Some of these guidelines are quite commonplace, but others have been more controversial. In particular, the suggestion that children under the age of two watch no television at all has raised questions for parents who’ve heard about the educational benefits of programs like “Baby Einstein.”

TV and the Developing Brain
The growing body of research focused on cognitive development and young children’s television viewing supports the validity and urgency of these questions. The first three years of a child’s life are an extremely important time for brain development. The brain is changing and developing rapidly and this makes it especially important to understand the cognitive impact of what young children are exposed to.

Researchers at the University of Washington, Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, report that 59% of children under the age of two watch more than one hour of television per day even though there is no programming proven to be educational for children of this age. The aim of the study was to understand how this daily TV time affected young minds. To accomplish this, researchers controlled to eliminate the possibility that any negative effects might come simply from the displacement of developmentally helpful activities like reading. According to the study, “Parents may believe that even at young ages television generally can be educational, yet this study suggests that television for young children is not helpful for cognitive development and may indeed be harmful.”

Another study conducted at the University of Washington suggests that time in front of the television correlates with attention problems later in life. In fact, each hour of television viewed daily between the ages of one and three increased the likelihood of disorders like ADHD by nearly ten percent at age seven.

In a commentary focused on this study, Dr. Jane Healy looks to the growing field of neuroscience for greater understanding. “Neuroscience increasingly confirms the power of environmental experiences in shaping the developing brain because of the plasticity of its neuronal connectivity. Thus, repeated exposure to any stimulus in a child’s environment may forcibly impact mental and emotional growth by either setting up particular circuitry (“habits of mind”) or depriving the brain of other experiences.” In other words, the surrounding environment can impact the actual structures of the human brain. Because young children’s brains are developing so rapidly, they are especially sensitive to what’s happening around them.

Another part of the TV problem has a lot to do with Healy’s notion of “depriving the brain of the other experiences.” In a study that tested the effectiveness of so called “Baby DVDs” like “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Baby,” researchers found time spent watching these programs could actually slow down the language development of babies. The study suggests that this is primarily because babies spend so little time awake. If babies pass this precious time watching TV instead of interacting with their parents, then they will miss out on crucial developmental experiences.

A study conducted by the New York University Medical Center concludes that part of the problem with watching television at a young age may be the lack of verbal interaction babies have with their mothers during TV time. The study points out that this parent-child interaction is an imperative part of a child’s development and this interaction was often absent when the TV was on. In these studies as well as a number of others, the problem is not attributed to television viewing itself, but to the reality that television viewing takes the place of activities so vital to the development of young minds.

However, some studies have found that television can be helpful to children’s cognitive development. The Center for the Advancement of Health found that a small amount of age appropriate educational programming had a positive effect for children between the ages of two and three. As many of the other studies note, however, much of the problem with television viewing is that it often goes unmonitored by parents and the content and span of time are not always in the best interest of the child. In this study television had a positive effect, but if television is used differently at home, then those positive outcomes may not translate.

So what’s a parent to do? Playing it safe may be your best bet. Follow the AAP guidelines and help children under the age of two avoid television. If they really want to watch, steer them toward very short, commercial free episodes of educational shows. Then be sure to view the show with your child and talk to her about what’s happening. For older children, two hours a day should be the limit. If your children are watching something you’re not completely comfortable with, watch the show with them and help them analyze the messages and values being presented And if that doesn’t work, you can always try baseball!

References:
Bureau of Labor Statistics. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm

Center For The Advancement Of Health (2001, September 24). Television Can Enhance Children’s Intellectual Development, Study Finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2001/09/010924061623.htm

Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center (2004, April 6). Study Finds Link Between Television Viewing And Attention Problem in Children. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/04/040406090140.htm

Committee on Public Education. Children, Adolescents, and Television. Pediatrics 2001 107: 423-426

Jane Healy. (2004, April). Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attention Problems in Children [commentary]. Pediatrics. 2004; 113: 917-918. Retrieved September 5, 2008. LexisNexis.

Anna Kuchment; Christina Gillham. (2008, February 8). Kids: To TV or Not TV. Newsweek, 151, 07. Page 60.

New York Medical Center/New York University School of Medicine (2008, May 5). Moms Have Few Interactions With Their Infants During TV Time. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 5, 2008, fromhttp://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080505162838.htm

Michael Regalado; Neal Halfon. Primary Care Services Promoting Optimal Child Development From Birth to Age 3 Years: Review of the Literature. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2001;155(12):1311-1322.

University of Washington (2007, August 8). Baby DVDS, Videos May Hinder, Not Help, Infants’ Language Development. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 30, 2008, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070808082039.htm

Frederick Zimmerman; Dimitri Christakis. (2005, March 4). Children’s Television Viewing and Cognitive Outcomes. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2005; 159: 619-625. Retrieved August 30, 2008, from www.archpediatrics.com