Most parents know instinctively not to let their children watch too much television. After all, we teach our children the right habits starting at an early age. Eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert. Do your homework and then you can play a game. We also know how hard it is to follow those rules, even as adults.
But many parents probably do not know about the body of research showing the potential for harmful and long-lasting effects associated with letting children younger than 2 watch any amount of television. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on Oct. 18 announced it discourages media use by children younger than 2 and the use of background television intended for adults when a young child is in the room.
No doubt, that sounds draconian to many parents. As president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents companies that make and sell televisions and other display devices, I know it certainly did for me - until a few years ago, when my son was born and my wife, a medical doctor, insisted I review the medical literature.
What I found not only concerned me, but also persuaded me to endorse the AAP’s guidelines despite the awkward position in which this puts makers of television sets, the very industry I have spent a career representing. But to its credit, the association urged me to publicize the AAP caution. Many said they would support it, and we prepared a public relations announcement and campaign. The AAP stopped this effort two years ago as it said a new warning was under review and asked us to wait until it was issued. We saw it recently, and it makes sense.
Studies show that television viewing by children can lead to higher rates of violence, obesity and poor school performance. Most would not be shocked by these findings. The literature is vast that establishes a link between what a child sees on television, such as violent behavior, and how that child acts at home or in school. So is the more mundane finding that children who spend hours inactive in front of the television are more likely to be overweight.
The real concern, however, is that a child’s cognitive maturation is more sensitive at 1 to 2 years than it is at even 3 to 6 years. So even though a child is too young to have homework or spend an hour outside on the playground, watching television could damage the child’s ability to do these activities later in life. That’s because the damage isn’t only habit-forming, which can be fixed, but it also can lead to neurological problems, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
A 2004 study in the journal Pediatrics found that early television viewing is associated with attention problems, such as ADHD, which become noticeable when the child enters school. The study followed more than 1,000 children between the ages of 1 and 3 who watched an average of 2.2 hours of television per day and found that 10 percent would develop attention problems by age 7.
The authors were careful to point out that the relationship between early childhood television viewing and attention problems like ADHD, which affects between 4 percent and 12 percent of U.S. schoolchildren, is an associated risk, meaning they cannot prove a firm link. Nevertheless, the authors noted that when given the full range of viewing hours (zero to 16), the “magnitude of the risk … is clinically significant.”
Developing a severe neurological condition like ADHD is the worst-case scenario and one that even proponents of the link maintain needs further study. There remain questions about why this risk exists. One explanation could be that because television shows are inherently exciting, children have a more difficult time focusing on less stimulating activities, such as reading. This preference somehow gets hard-wired into the brain, especially at early, impressionable ages.
Whatever the reasons, when one also considers other risks science has discovered with early childhood television viewing, including obesity, violence and poor school performance, the scales start tilting in favor of AAP’s guidelines. A 2002 Pediatrics study noted that children who watched at least three hours of television per day at age 2 were almost three times as likely as other children to watch at least three hours per day at age 6.
A young child does not need to be diagnosed with ADHD for parents to appreciate that three hours of television a day is not healthy. When a child spends three hours in front of the screen, that’s three hours he is not reading, playing or doing homework. As the child gets older, these habits will only be harder to break.
As parents, simply knowing that our son could develop habits that would put him at an obvious disadvantage later in life is enough for my wife and me to turn off the television and open a book. This is an individual family choice, and I understand that it might not be the one all families make.
My parents limited me to one hour of television a day, except for special weekend events. Now, as the head of an association whose members manufacture televisions, I ask parents to consider the AAP’s advice and protect our youngest and most impressionable children.
Gary Shapiro is president of the Consumer Electronics Association and author of “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream” (Beaufort Books, 2011).