Short Attention Span Theatre


The Television Attention Deficit

By Ron Kaufman

"Look, people have cooked dinner for thousands of years... without resorting to TV."
-- Seattle pediatrician Dimitri Christakis


The Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, Washington
"Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children"
as published in the April 2004 issue of "Pediatrics" by researchers
Dimitri A. Christakis, MD; Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD; David L. DiGiuseppe, MSc; and Carolyn A. McCarty, PhD

NARRATOR 1: Pediatric behavioral researchers in Seattle have found a strong causal link between watching television and the prevalence of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in young children. The interesting aspect of this report is that the researchers did not look at the content of television programs. Content is immaterial. This study proves that it does not matter what children watch, but the use of the medium of television itself that should be a concern to parents. Even if children are watching so-called "educational" television, the negative effects of TV-viewing can still impact the brain.

NARRATOR 2: ADHD is a mental disorder defined by inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. This problem is said to effect between 4% and 12% of children in the United States. Symptoms usually manifest themselves before the age of seven and will often lead to serious problems with school, social and occupational functioning. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association places the following characteristics on ADHD:

Fails to pay close attention to details or makes careless errors in schoolwork, work or other activities Squirms in seat or fidgets Answers questions before they have been completely asked
Has trouble keeping attention on tasks or play Inappropriately leaves seat Has trouble or awaiting turn
Doesn't appear to listen when being told something Inappropriately runs or climbs (in adolescents or adults, the may be only a subjective feeling of restlessness) Interrupts or intrudes on others
Neither follows through on instructions nor completes chores, schoolwork, or jobs (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand) Has trouble quietly playing or engaging in leisure activity
Has trouble organizing activities and tasks Appears driven or "on the go"
Dislikes or avoids tasks that involve sustained mental effort (homework, schoolwork) Talks excessively
Loses materials needed for activities (assignments, books, pencils, tools, toys)  
Easily distracted by extraneous stimuli

NARRATOR 1: Dr. Jane Healy from Vail, Colorado argues that the Seattle study brings the problem of television's detrimental effects on young children into a long-overdue spotlight.

DR. HEALY: Their systematic approach, their inclusion of a wide variety of variables, and the size of the group all lend credibility to their findings, which create a new imperative for follow-up investigations.

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.

[With today's] “epidemic” of ADHD, perhaps it is indeed time to ask the research questions so ably initiated by Christakis et al and to consider that pediatricians may have yet one more job to do in early parent education about placing limits on screen time. ("Pediatrics," April 2004)

NARRATOR 1: Perhaps, this study will become the first in challenging the common practice of the "tv babysitter." Dr. Dimitri Christakis, lead researcher of the Seattle study, notes that parents should not be fooled by thinking educational television is unequivocally good for children.

DR. CHRISTAKIS: This study suggests that there is a significant and important association between early exposure to television and subsequent attentional problems. We know from national estimates that children watch an average of 2-3 hours of television a day in the 1-3 year old age group and that as many as 30 percent of all children have a television in their bedroom. There is a tremendous and growing reliance on television for a variety of reasons. However, parents should be advised to limit their young child’s television viewing.

NARRATOR 1: The report notes that "it is widely known that the newborn brain continues to develop rapidly through the first few years of life and that considerable plasticity exists during this period. Considerable evidence also exists that environmental exposures, including types and degrees of stimulation, affect the number and the density of neuronal synapses. The types and intensity of visual and auditory experiences that children have early in life therefore may have profound influences on brain development."

NARRATOR 2: The Seattle researchers found that "early exposure to television was associated with subsequent attentional problems." Even when taking into account numerous other environmental and parental factors, the report notes that "the magnitude of the risk associated with television viewing, expressed in our analysis in terms of hours per day of television viewed, is clinically significant when one considers the full range of hours of television viewed in our sample."

NARRATOR 1: "In contrast to the pace with which real life unfolds and is experienced by young children, television can portray rapidly changing images, scenery, and events. It can be overstimulating yet extremely interesting.," say the researchers.

NARRATOR 2: Most disturbing, were results which indicate that an "increase in the number of hours of television watched at age 1 is associated with a 28% increase in the probability of having attentional problems at age 7. This result is robust and stable over time—a similar effect size is obtained for the number of hours of television watched at age 3."

NARRATOR 1: The researchers did admit some faults in their study including the possible unreliability of self-reporting and particular parental traits which also may have impacted the development of young minds. Also, the researchers, by design, did not factor in the content of television programs into the study. They did suggest that some argue content does have an impact.

NARRATOR 2: However, even with its faults, the Seattle research opens up the idea of studying the medium of television, rather than solely looking at the content. The researchers conclude that they hope "inattention" will be added "to the previously studied deleterious consequences of excessive television viewing, including violent behavior and obesity." They state their "findings suggest that preventive action can be taken with respect to attentional problems in children. Limiting young children’s exposure to television as a medium during formative years of brain development consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendations may reduce children’s subsequent risk of developing ADHD."

NARRATOR 1: In a message to parents, the AAP says that "children in the United States watch about four hours of TV every day. Watching movies on tape or DVD and playing video games only adds to time spent in front of the TV screen. It may be tempting to use television, movies and video games to keep your child busy, but your child needs to spend as much time exploring and learning as possible. Playing, reading and spending time with friends and family are much healthier than sitting in front of a TV screen." The organization further advises parents to set limits. "Limit your child's use of TV, movies and video and computer games to no more than one or two hours per day. Do not let your child watch TV while doing homework. Do not put a television in your child's bedroom," says the AAP.

NARRATOR 2: Dr. David Walsh, president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, praised the Seattle study as a wake up call for parents.

DR. WALSH: The one question parents and teachers always ask me is whether there is any connection between early media use and ADHD. I have long believed there was a link. Now, this study confirms it. These findings are particularly alarming when you consider the Kaiser Family Foundation's study last year showing that one-third of all children under six, and one-fourth of those under two, have televisions in their bedrooms.

NARRATOR 2: Dr. Walsh has published a paper, "Seven Building Blocks for School Success." One of the building blocks is "the ability to pay attention."

DR. WALSH: Evidence is growing that early TV exposure undermines all the building blocks, and this study is proof that tuning into the tube at an early age contributes to attention problems and hampers learning. If we are going to be successful in 'leaving no child behind,' we'd better get screens out of kids' bedrooms and start limiting TV exposure. It's one of the few risks to children that comes with an on/off switch.

NARRATOR 1: The National Institutes of Mental Health calls ADHD "one of the most common mental disorders in children and adolescents." The NIMH warns that "children with ADHD have impaired functioning in multiple settings, including home, school, and in relationships with peers. If untreated, the disorder can have long-term adverse effects into adolescence and adulthood."

NARRATOR 2: Doctors in the United States have made clear statements for many years that exposure to hours and hours of television at young ages will negatively impact the development of a child's mind. The real question is whether the recommendations of the country's doctors will be able to break through the loud volume of television networks and commercials? Will the parents and guardians of America's children be able and willing to switch off the TV set and engage in more interactivity with their children? The only hope is that this research study will ignite the desire of other researchers to further investigate the impact of television on the family and the possible connection with mental health issues, such as ADHD. For the sake of America's children, parents should turn off the television and instead pursue another stimulating activity which for centuries, has been proven to benefit children -- reading a book.

© 2004 by Ron Kaufman @


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