- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2010

Pediatricians’ warnings may be right — children who spend more than two hours a day watching television and playing video games seem to struggle more to stay focused in school.

“Even a small effect may be of considerable social importance, given the ubiquity of television and video games,” Edward L. Swing and colleagues said in their study, which appears online Monday in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

The AAP repeatedly has recommended that children spend no more than two hours a day of “screen time,” i.e., watching television and playing video games.

Previous studies have shown that watching excessive amounts of TV is linked to attention-span problems in children, but there weren’t any longitudinal studies looking at the impact of video gaming, said Mr. Swing, who teaches at Iowa State University.

He and his colleagues assessed 1,323 children in third, fourth and fifth grades over 13 months.

Both the children and their parents answered questions about the children’s video game and television habits. (Average exposure was about 4.5 hours a day.)

Teachers then rated the children on how well they paid attention in class, whether they could stay “on task,” and whether they interrupted other children during work sessions.

A second group of 210 college-age students also answered questions about their television habits, video-game exposure and attention problems.

Mr. Swing and his colleagues found that children who exceeded AAP screen-time recommendations were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be “above average” in attention problems.

Furthermore, the college students showed a similar association, suggesting that early video-game exposure could have lasting impacts.

Mr. Swing and his colleagues said they weren’t sure why television and video-game exposure would have any effects, but suggested exploring “rapid scene changes.” Such “exciting” changes in sights and sounds may “harm children’s abilities to sustain focus on tasks that are not inherently attention-grabbing,” they wrote.

Another question was whether all, or just some, kinds of TV and video games could be associated with attention problems.

“Educational television may differ from noneducational television in terms of pacing or violent content or other features … which might account for such a difference,” they wrote. The same may be true with video games — different features may “lead to differential effects on attention problems.”

The core message is that “balance is important,” Mr. Swing said. Even though the average time spent with TV and video games was 4.26 hours a day, for many children, it was a lot higher, he said.

Mr. Swing’s colleagues included veteran video-game researchers Craig A. Anderson and Douglas A. Gentile, both of Iowa State University’s Center for the Study of Violence, as well as David A. Walsh, whose video-game watchdog organization, the National Institute on Media and the Family, closed last year.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group for the video-game industry, 67 percent of U.S. households play video games.

The average game player is 34 to 35 years old and has been playing for 12 years. Boys 17 or younger represent 18 percent of the game-playing population, the association said.

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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