Watching television more than two hours a day early on in childhood can lead to attention problems later on as a teen, according to a recently published long-term New Zealand study.
“Those who watched more than two hours, and particularly those who watched more than three hours, of television per day during childhood had above-average symptoms of attention problems in adolescence,” Erik Landhuis of the University of Otago reported in a study published in the August 2007 issue of Pediatrics.
The researchers observed a nearly 40% increase in attention problems amongst those who watched television more often than those who watched it less often.
The increase in attention problems was also independent of whether a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder was made prior to adolescence.
The study is not proof that TV viewing causes attention problems because it may be that children prone to attention problems may be drawn to watching television. Because this study did not seek to prove a causal link between television and attention span, its researchers can’t draw conclusions about which way the data relationship goes.
Also, because the study was historical in nature and relied on parents’ reporting of the amount of time their children watched, and did not test for the parents’ reporting accuracy, the data obtained may not be reliable.
Symptoms of attention problems included short attention span, poor concentration, and being easily distracted. The findings could not be explained by early-life attention difficulties, socio-economic factors, or intelligence, says the team.
“This latest study adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests parents should take steps to limit the amount of TV their children watch [early in their lives],” said Bob Hancox, one of the researchers.
The team studied the long-term habits and behaviors of 1,037 children born in Dunedin, New Zealand between April 1972 and March 1973. The children aged 5 to 11 watched an average of 2.05 hours of weekday television. From age 13 to 15, time spent in front of the television rose to an average of 3.1 hours a day.
Young children who watched a lot of television were more likely to continue the habit as they got older, but even if they did not, the damage was done, the study said.
“This suggests that the effects of childhood viewing on attention may be long lasting,” Landhuis notes. He offers several possible explanations for the association.
One is that the rapid scene changes common to many TV programs may overstimulate the developing brain of a young child, and could make reality seem boring by comparison.
“Hence, children who watch a lot of television may become less tolerant of slower-paced and more mundane tasks, such as school work,” he writes.
It is also possible that TV viewing may supplant other activities that promote concentration, such as reading, games, sports and play, he says. The lack of participation inherent in TV watching might also condition children when it comes to other activities.
It’s not clear why this link wasn’t reported sooner, given that the last data collected was in 1988, over 19 years ago.