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Minimizing the Negative Effects of Excessive Media Use on Young Children

Should families adopt a no TV rule in light of research that says that fast-paced cartoons aren't good for children's development? In today's screen-centric world, the more realistic option may be to limit the amount and types of TV that kids watch.

We don't watch TV in our home. Yes, we have a television for watching movies, but we don't have a cable package, nor do we have access to even the basic channels.

Some people think this is a strange choice to make, but I think it will benefit my son and his future siblings. And in light of what I'll call the SpongeBob Square Pants study back in September, I now have many more reasons why I advocate for minimal, if any, TV watching in the home.

The key findings of the SpongeBob study were highlighted in the news, particularly that watching fast-paced television shows was found to decrease four-year-olds' attention spans. But there were other aspects of the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, that lend to the idea that television viewing is something that needs to be closely monitored by informed parents.

The study, entitled "The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children's Executive Function," assessed how different types of television viewing affected the executive function, or memory and self-regulatory abilities, of sixty four-year-olds.

The kids were broken up into three groups. One group watched "a very popular fantastical cartoon about an animated sponge that lives under the sea." A second group watched a PBS show about a pre-school aged boy and the third group was asked to draw pictures and not watch any TV.

The researchers, Angeline S. Lillard and Jennifer Peterson, found that after nine minutes of watching SpongeBob, the children in that group experienced negative effects in their executive function when asked to complete a Tower of Hanoi puzzle and a delayed gratification task (ie: "You can have one cookie now or two cookies if you wait 10 minutes.")

The kids who watched the slower-paced PBS show and those who didn't watch anything performed better on those tests. The researchers noted that the children came from households of similar socioeconomic standing, with their parents reporting that every day attention spans amongst the kids were about the same.

Notably, the kids in the study only watched nine minutes of SpongeBob, while the actual TV show comprises of three seven-minute segments with commercials in between. The researchers wrote that longer viewing periods "could be more detrimental."

In light of the study's findings the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which publishes Pediatrics, released a new policy statement regarding childrens' television viewing. 

While the AAP maintains its advisement against the "potential adverse health and developmental effects of media use by children younger than two years," the organization also notes a study that found that by age three, nearly one-third of kids have a TV in their bedroom.

Television viewing in the home has been found to be directly coorelated with socioeconomic and educational status. The AAP notes that 39 percent of families with infants and young children engage in "heavy media use," or having the TV on for six or more hours daily. Kids living in single parent homes and in homes where parents didn't graduate from high school, the amount of TV viewing is increased.

Three- and four-year-olds who live in heavy media use homes spent 25 percent less time reading or being read to than kids in homes where TV viewing was minimized.. That figure jumped to 38 percent for five- and six-year-olds. And those kids were also found to be less likely to be able to read than their low media use counterparts.

Having the television on as background noise seems to be detrimental to engaging young kids in creative play time, which might include drawing, painting, or playing with blocks, dolls and cars. When the TV is on, parents are distracted, and kids are distracted, too. Indeed, in heavy media use homes, the TV is inevitably the monster in the room.

The AAP notes that kids younger than five who watch TV spend "less time in creative play and less time interacting with parents or siblings. For every hour of television that a child younger than two watches along, he/she spends an additional 52 minutes less time per day interacting with a parent or sibling."

In another piece published in Pediatrics, Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH aptly explains that the challenge for parents, doctors and caregivers isn't eliminating media use, but engaging in "harm reduction approaches."

"Steering children and adolescents toward safe or even health-promoting media activities must be a goal, and actionable strategies for reaching that goal must be devised," writes Christakis. "Unfortunately, the digital immigrants among us are tasked with training the digital natives to be selective and thoughtful in their use of media."

From the studies and research that already exists, it's clear that the well-being and healthy development of children is sacrificed when they spend hours a day glued to TV shows, video games and the Internet. In fact, the AAP says, "Infant vocabulary growth is directly related to the amount of 'talk time' or the amount of time parents spend speaking to them. Heavy television use in a household can interfere with a child’s language development simply because parents likely spend less time talking to the child."

Even though we don't have TV in our home, I often fight the urge to take the easy way out and just let my son watch a movie while I do dishes or laundry. Fortunately, as Christakis writes, the goal isn't to eliminate media, but for parents to choose which forms of media and for what amount of time we allow our children to watch. So for my two-year-old, it's a matter of watching a Sesame Street movie or Sid the Science Kid for an hour a day versus six hours or more of fast-paced TV shows with commercials.

Ultimately, parents should be aware of the detrimental effects of too much TV viewing on kids, and hopefully as this information is acquired, more parents will decide to spend more quality time reading, playing, jumping, running and pretending with their kids...with the TV turned off.

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