Quality vs. Quantity: TV Guidelines for Kids (cont.)

TV Linked to Attention Problems

A study by researchers at the University of Washington Child Health Institute supports the idea of a connection between TV viewing and attention problems. According to the researchers, a 3-year-old who watches two hours of TV per day is 20% more likely to have attention problems at age 7 than a child who watches no television. The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics.

"Most TV programs now require very short attention spans," says American Academy of Pediatrics spokeswoman Susan Buttross, MD. "In a classroom setting, you need to have sustained attention for a prolonged period of time. The more you're used to having something fast and furious going by you, the harder the classroom setting gets."

But don't unplug your TV just yet. Other studies show preschoolers who watch high-quality educational television programs tend to score better on reading and math tests. "Children who are watching good programs do make gains, both cognitively and socially," says Dorothy Singer, EdD, co-director of Yale University's Family Television Research and Consultation Center.

Singer tells WebMD that television becomes a problem when parents give their kids too much control over what and how much they watch. With the average American child watching about four hours of TV per day, she says kids are missing out on real life experiences. "It's taking time away from socializing with other children, from beginning to read, from exploring the neighborhood, from exercising and riding a bicycle."

When to Tune in or Turn Off

So how much TV is too much for your kids? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one or two hours per day of "quality screen time" for children aged 2 and older. Screen time refers to television, movies, video games, and surfing the Internet.

To make the most of TV time, parents should use a program guide to choose quality children's shows and watch with their children whenever possible, Singer says. She adds that parents should stick to the two-hour limit even when it's too cold or rainy to play outside. She suggests music, games, toys, books, art projects, and finger paints as rainy-day alternatives to TV.

As for children younger than 2, the Academy's recommendation is no television at all. Buttross, who heads the division of child development and behavioral pediatrics at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, says more research is needed on how TV affects this age group. "There is such rapid brain development going on during the first couple years of life. Language development is supposed to be rocketing from bare minimal cooing to sentences by the age of 2. Interactive learning is so important."

Singer agrees. "Children under 2 need to touch, feel, taste, smell, and explore their environment. Their major experience should be play and interaction with human beings. TV is not really adding anything to a child below the age of 2."