Checkup on health: Pediatrician urges reduced TV exposure

Children watching TV © iStockphoto
TV is linked to decreased academic performance and language skills, altered brain structure, increased aggression and risk of obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no more than one to two hours of TV a day.

By Robert Byrd, M.D., M.P.H.

September 20-26, 2009, is a TV-Turnoff Week!

Use "Turnoff Week" to discover all the things you can do with a few hours of extra time each day. And take a couple of moments to think about the impact TV has on your family’s life. 

Consider some startling facts:

  • Americans watch an average of more than four hours of TV a day. That’s two full months a year! By age 65, nine years of life will have been spent in front of the screen.
  • The average American 18-year-old has seen more than 200,000 acts of violence on TV. Virtually all of the 3,500 research studies conducted over the past 40 years have shown a link between watching media violence and committing acts of real violence.
  • During four hours of Saturday morning cartoons, a child may view 202 ads for junk food.
  • Two-thirds of programs during prime-time contain portrayals of drinking or verbal references to it. One survey of 10-year-olds found that they could name more brands of beer than American presidents.

Drop in academic performance and vocabulary

Language — and other skills — are best learned by practice. Studies show that as TV time increases, academic performance goes down, especially reading scores. Parents should be reading to their children. Daily reading as little as 30 minutes a day adds up to 1,000 hours by 6 years.

About the author

Robert Byrd is a pediatrician with UC Davis Children's Hospital in Sacramento.

In addition to reading to your child, it is good to talk to them. Parents can speed their child's growth in language just by talking more to their babies. Over the first three years of life, there can be a difference of millions of words difference in the amount of vocabulary that children in language-poor homes are exposed to compared to children in language-rich homes. This early language difference makes real differences in school readiness.

I am most concerned with what kids aren’t learning while the TV set is on. Time spent sitting passively is time away from reading, playing with friends, building with toys, creating art and playing imaginary games. Most importantly, time spent with the television can limit a child's opportunity to interact with caring adults.

May alter brain structure

Perhaps most disturbing: experts are finding increasing evidence that TV viewing may alter the physical structure of the brain. It may be that the visual nature of television blocks the development of left-hemisphere language circuitry.

Attention skills seem to be particularly affected. Images on TV change about every five to seven seconds and are often accompanied by exciting music. Children who become accustomed to this kind of stimulation often have trouble attending to the slower pace of natural conversation. The “five-second mind” easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing. Some parents of children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder find marked improvement after TV viewing is eliminated.

Clear association with aggression

There can be little doubt any more that exposure to TV violence promotes aggression. A clear association has been shown with youngsters of all ages, both girls and boys, from all socioeconomic levels and all levels of intelligence. This effect is not limited to children who are already predisposed to aggressiveness.

Here’s one more reason to turn off the tube in your family. Studies show that TV watching is associated with obesity for both children and adults. Even reading a book burns more calories! Not only is it a sedentary activity, but many people eat extra calories while watching. Then when they’re at the store, they’re more likely to pick up the foods they saw advertised.

Some parents of children diagnosed with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder find marked improvement after TV viewing is eliminated.

A public health measure

Pediatricians are now urging parents to shut off TV as a public health measure, just like they are promoting bike helmets and immunizations. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no more than one to two hours of TV a day. Children under two years of age should not watch any, and no child should be allowed a TV in the bedroom.

Here are ways to reduce TV in your family’s life:

  • Get rid of all televisions in the house except one. Move it to a non-prominent location.
  • Keep the TV off during meals. Don’t allow eating in the room where the TV is.
  • Cancel your cable subscription. Use the money saved to buy something special.

Our children deserve the best. Explore new interests with your family. Offer activities that strengthen bodies, develop skills, build confidence, encourage creativity and better realize your child's full potential.