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Tuning In to a Problem

A Worried Mom Pursues the Facts About What TV Does to Its Youngest Viewers

By Lisa Guernsey
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 9, 2004; Page HE01

In April, a study appeared in the journal Pediatrics that gave new parents another reason to lose sleep: Evidence had emerged that children who had watched a lot of television as toddlers were having attention problems at age 7.

While I read the study, my 3-month-old daughter Gillian was strapped into her bouncy chair, which happened to be facing the TV. The set was turned on for my 26-month-old daughter, Janelle, who had taken a liking to "Playhouse Disney."

New data on TV use among the very young had made news a few months earlier. Nearly 60 percent of children under 2 watch television in a typical day; 43 percent watch every day, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported. Twenty-six percent of children in that age group have a television in their bedroom.

The numbers were eye-opening (television in a baby's bedroom?), but I had never felt concerned about our household. My husband and I watch a several hours a week of news, Comedy Central and the Food Network. But we can go days without turning on the tube. My older daughter loves playing outside and she almost always picked Play-Doh over videos. The baby barely seemed to notice the screen, except to sometimes turn her head at the sound of music or be lulled to sleep by it.

But the Pediatrics article -- which is still a hot topic debated at playgrounds around the country -- made me worry about my "why worry?" philosophy. The study analyzed data from more than 1,000 children who had taken part in a national survey that spanned many years. It showed that for each hour of television that toddlers watched daily, their risk of having attention problems was increased by almost 10 percent. Put another way, a child who watched two hours of TV per day before age 3 would be 20 percent more likely to have attention problems at age 7 than a child who watched none.

By the time I had finished reading, the bouncy chair was facing the other direction.

True, the study used data from the 1980s and early 1990s, before there was nearly as much baby-tailored TV available as there is today. And it relied on parents' reports of their children's behavior. The biggest caveat was that the authors could not prove that the problems were caused by television. In fact, maybe children destined to have attention problems were more likely to be plunked in front of the television to calm them down.

That was an escape hatch, but I was still anxious. What was I doing to my children by exposing them to TV before their brains were fully developed? Could the mind really be miswired by watching too much of "The Wiggles"? How was "Baby Einstein" -- a video series jokingly called "Baby Crack" -- different from gazing at a musical mobile moving above a crib?

Over the next several months, I discovered pockets of new research -- including some unexpected conclusions about the risks of "Sesame Street" when viewed by very young children -- that have led my husband and me to pay more attention to what our daughters watch and how long they watch it. Studies on the distraction of background television have even changed our own viewing habits.

But like the majority of our parenting friends, we continue to feel ambivalent. Dimitri Christakis, the lead author of the Pediatrics study, calls television "the elephant in the American family room," and he's right. But we grew up on television. And although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no TV for kids under 2, there are times when we just have to turn it on.

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