It’s no surprise then that I’m usually pleased when I come across scientific evidence that television is bad for you, and I have yet to come across scientific evidence that television is actually good for anyone. I recently found a series of papers on the effects of television viewing in children. Since most households I know have a television in them, I think that makes it relevant science, so I’m dedicating a two-part blog post on those articles. In today’s article, researchers from Seattle, Washington study the relationship between what kind of television shows children watch and attentional problems later in life (attentional problems include but are not restricted to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder).
In the study, hundreds of parents (and other caregivers) of children 0 to 5 years old were questioned on how much television and what type of shows the children watched. Each household was followed up on 5 years later (so that the children were 5 to 10 years old) and asked about the behaviour of the children. For the purpose of the study, the children were separated into two groups: 0 to 3 years old, and 4-5 years old. Also for the purpose of the study, the types of television shows and movies were separated into 3 categories: educational (for example, Sesame Street), nonviolent entertainment (for example, The Aristocats) and violent content (for example, Power Rangers or Looney Tunes).
The good news is that the researchers found that for children aged 4 to 5 years, watching any kind of television was not significantly associated with attentional problems 5 years later. For the 0 to 3 years old, watching educational television also didn’t impact the children, but each hour per day of viewing violent entertainment television was associated with double the odds for attentional problems 5 years later. Watching nonviolent entertainment was also associated with subsequent attentional problems, but to a lesser degree than violent entertainment.
Now I don’t typically like these types of studies because I always can think of so many things that are not being taken into consideration (confounding factors in the scientific lingo). For example, is the effect the same for boys and for girls? What about if the family is rich or poor? The reason I like this particular study is because the researchers did control for many potential confounders like gender, urban or rural area of residence, socioeconomic adversity, number of children in the household, mother and father’s educational levels, mother’s mental health, presence of father in the household, parental conflict, etc. For example, by taking all these characteristics into account, the researchers could control for the fact that children who grow up in a rich and stimulating environment might be exposed to lower amounts of early television watching.
That being said, association studies are not perfect. They are reporting observations and not experimentations, and this means that the results do not necessarily report a cause-and-effect relationship. So in the end, we can’t say that watching violent shows always leads to attentional problems.
Regardless of its limitations, I find the study interesting and the results quite frightening (especially considering the study classifies “The Lion King” as violent content). The researchers mention two theories that could explain how watching television can impair healthy development. The first theory suggests that every moment in front of the television is a moment not spent on appropriate learning opportunities, like pretend play. The second theory is that fast pacing and quick scene changes typical of non-educational television shows trick the brain to think that real life is also a quick and constantly changing stimulus, and the brain comes to expect it. I find this second theory to be especially appropriate for the association with attentional problems. It also explains why educational television, which has been shown to be significantly slower-paced than other types of programming, is less damaging.
It was almost a no-brainer that Mister Roger’s neighbourhood equals good and Rambo equals bad. However, I wouldn’t have guessed that watching Wile E. Coyote blow himself up over and over again with Acme dynamite was anything more than a silly, harmless cartoon.
Good babysitter? Think again.
Reference: Associations between content types of early media exposure and subsequent attentional problems. Zimmerman, F.J., Christakis, D.A. Pediatrics 2007 120(5):987-992.