Childhood TV - how much is too much?

Today more than ever our children are bombarded with options for their amusement and entertainment.

Of course there are the classic toys, books, puzzles and children’s music that have been around forever and now there are newer versions of the classics with up to date electronic capabilities. But today there are also countless television shows, DVDs, video and computer games to keep even the youngest children distracted in virtually any situation.

Along with the expanding prevalence of television and videos targeted to very young children, have come questions regarding whether exposure to such media is healthy or unhealthy to the growing brain and body.

More research is needed in this area, but a growing body of evidence has led to a few recommendations about television viewing in young children. According to research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 40 per cent of children under the age of two watch TV every day and almost one in five watch DVDs or videos every day. Three quarters of children have watched TV before the age of two.

Children up to age six spend an average of two hours each day using screen media (which includes television, videos, computers and video games). This is about the same as the average time spent playing outside and three times as much as time spent looking at books.

Almost a third of children aged zero to three and more than 40 per cent of those aged four to six have televisions in their bedrooms and those children tend to spend more time using screen media, read less and learn to read later than those in other households.

Research dating from the introduction of television up to very recently has examined its effects on violent behaviour, obesity, attention and brain development and learning with interesting results.

Unlike other systems in our bodies, the human brain is considered embryonic at birth and the majority of its development occurs in the first two years of a child’s life. Direct interaction with people and objects as well as creative, problem-solving activities are known to be very important to proper brain development in the very young.

Since television and other screen media do not offer these functions, some health agencies including the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend no exposure from birth to age two.

For children aged two and older, research indicates screen media can have both positive and negative effects and should be monitored closely.

Some studies suggest a link between television use and obesity. Of course, time spent in front of the TV is time a child is not engaging in active pursuits. One study showed the likelihood of obesity increasing for each hour of TV or video viewed each day. In this study, 40 per cent of children had televisions in their bedrooms and this group watched more TV and were more likely to be obese. However, another impacting factor may be exposure to food related advertising, which can affect life-long eating habits.

Television in the background can also be a disruptive influence for children. One study examined the impact on children from birth to age six in households where television was on most of the day. Regardless of age, children in these homes read less than others and were also less likely to be able to read. Other research has found very young children have shorter play and attention spans in the presence of background television and interact less with parents.

As a result of these and other findings, some health agencies recommend limiting screen media use to one or two hours each day in children aged two or older.

Of course TV can have positive effects as well. Quality educational programming has been shown to improve language development among pre-school children and when parents watch with children it is possible to interact and find learning opportunities within a program.

As with most things in life – moderation is likely the key when it comes to TV and other electronic media for children. Regardless of age or the quality of programming, a child should not be watching hours of television every day at the expense of active play and interaction with peers, parents and their environment.

TV should not become the babysitter for chronically busy or overwhelmed parents. Instead, electronic media should simply be one more tool in the parenting toolbox to be used judiciously and with appropriate monitoring and limits.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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