Television's Effects on Young Children


A growing concern in the US is the possible connection between how much TV a child watches in their early years and the development of attention disorders in their adolescence. Dimitri Christakis, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Washington, made a significant observation while spending time with his infant son in 1998. He noticed that while he was watching television, his two-month-old son was also extremely engaged in the program. His son couldn't understand what the show was saying, but he was completely glued to the screen. Dimitri made the conclusion that the images were triggering his son's attention reflexes rapidly, and pondered upon the implications of the stimulation at such a young age.


Dimitri wanted to know if this overstimulation would condition a young child to expect it more frequently, thus causing everyday activities to seem mundane and boring. If a connection was found, it could help identify the cause of the increased number of ADHD diagnoses in recent years.


Christakis gathered a team of researchers to try and shed some light on the topic. They looked at data on over 1300 children, and found that those who watched two hours of television per day before the age of 3 were 20% more likely to develop attention problems by the age of 7. When they published their data in 2004, it caused a stir in the national media.


The problem with this study is that it is observational, and thus cannot prove that the amount of TV watched really does lead to attention impairment.  The researchers only looked at the data they had available to them, and had no idea if there were confounding variables that led to the results. This article describes how socio-economic status could have been a contributing factor to the correlation, but a host of other variables could be at play.  Some of these variables include overstimulation by other means. For example, a child could watch a decent amount of TV, but the results could be because that child spends the majority of his time on his GameBoy. In addition, a lack of parent-child interaction could be a cause. A parent who plops their child down in front of the television instead of interacting and playing with them could cause a development problem in that child. Another problem I had with the study was that they compared the children who watched 2 hours of TV per day to children who watched no TV at all. I can't necessarily say for certain what the numbers were like when the study was conducted, but I find it hard to believe in this day and age that there was a large sample of children who hadn't watched any TV in their lives.


While these findings were enough for the national media to gobble up and distribute, Dimitri knew that more research had to be done before it was considered conclusive. He conducted another study in which a link was established between watching cartoons and attention disorders, whereas the link between educational programming and attention was found to be much less. Still, this was an observational study, and therefore couldn't necessarily prove anything one way or another.


Dimitri and his colleague Fred Zimmerman were convinced that the amount of TV a child watched was absolutely a factor in the development of ADHD, and with that they wanted to explore how the different types of programming affected development in young children. They decided the best way to truly prove a more concrete conclusion was to conduct an experiment. They proposed to have two randomly assigned groups of children: the first group would watch a small amount of educational TV, while the second group would watch whatever their parents normally allowed. The National Institute of Health turned down his proposal, and no further study has been done on the matter.


I do believe that educational programming at a young age is beneficial to a developing brain. Slow paced shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood are designed to teach young children cognitive skills without bombarding them with visual queues and loud, flashy images. It's seriously almost sickening to see the kinds of shows that are targeting young children these days. Next time you're flipping through channels, turn on Cartoon Network for a few minutes. I guarantee that you probably won't be able to make it through one episode of "Uncle Grandpa" (what?) or the annoying Orange show without questioning your sanity. They are exactly the kind of shows that Dimitri Christakis' research warned us would be harmful to the development of our youth. In my own personal opinion, a greater emphasis should be placed on monitoring what children are watching, especially at a young age.


I can see why the NIH turned down Christakis' proposal. If there were even a chance that his research is true, and some programs are harmful to the development of children, why would a parent intentionally put their child at risk? I feel as though this is another one of those areas of science where experimental research is questionably unethical, and a creative way to conduct the study needs to be found in order for it to be approved. Would you have been willing to volunteer your child to Dimitri's study for the sake of scientific research?


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