The link between media viewing and subsequent attentional problems

Written by Cindy Hovington, Ph.D. and Founder of

Montreal, Canada

Scientific research suggests a link between media viewing in young children and attentional problems later in their lives. The American Academy of Paediatrics discourages TV viewing in the first 2 years of life (wth research suggested this be pushed up to 3). Part of the reason is because the first two years of a baby’s life are critical years for brain development and therefore a baby should be in an environment that will nourish the brain. If they are watching TV several hours a day, they are being taken away from talking with other people to promote their language development, emotional and social skills or playing with their parents to help develop cognitive and motor skills. Dr. Kristakis wrote an interesting review paper on this topic. Here is what he discusses in his article called The effects of infant media usage: what do we know and what we should learn (click on this title of the article to read his full paper). Here are some important points mentioned in his article.

Why researchers are worried about media viewing in babies:

Dr. Dimitri Christakis explains that a baby is born with a brain that is not fully developed. In the first 2 years of life, a newborns brain triples in size and this growth happens as a result of their environment and external stimulation. Although as parents, we might think that “educational videos” help our babies to learn to how to speak, there is no research showing that they can do this. More importantly, learning in “real life” i.e. speaking with someone to learn a language is always the most beneficial for development in a baby.

This article highlights 2 ways in which TV can have a negative impact on a child’s development. The first being the flashing lights, the scene changes, quick edits and auditory cuts may be overstimulating for the brain. When your child is viewing their favourite TV show, have a look at how many times per minute the scene is changing (have a look at the video below for more details). Having the TV on in the background while your baby is playing is also overstimulating for their brain. The second major issue is that every hour of TV they watch, takes them away from important developmentally appropriate activities (playing with building blocks, puzzles, serve and return interactions (click here for a video on this).

Intense exposure to TV in children under the age of 2 is considered to be 2 or more hours per day. For these high levels of TV viewing in babies, research has shown that this can cause language delays. Even if babies are watching higher quality programs such as Sesame Street, when it exceeds 2 hours, it is simply too much for the brain. Although none of the current “educational videos” on the market have been shown to be beneficial for babies, in older children (ages 3-5) Sesame Street has been shown to help improve a child’s cognitive skills and to help them in school.

TV viewing and attentional problems:

Previous research has shown a link between TV viewing and attentional problems (Christakis et al, Pediatrics. 2004). The more TV a child watches before the age of 3, the higher the risk of attention problems by age 7. An important follow-up study by Zimmerman and Christakis (Pediatrics, 2007) questioned whether the type of TV a child watches has an impact on developing subsequent attentional problems. Children under the age of 5 were followed for 5 years. They collected data on these young children to see what type of TV shows they watched. They then categorized the TV shows into 3 categories, “educational”, “non-violent entertainment” and “violent”. See Figure 1 for examples of TV shows that fit each category. Interestingly, each hour of viewing TV shows watched by children younger than 3 in the “non-violent entertainment” and “violent” category increased the chance a child would develop an attentional problem 5 years later. This link was not found when children watched TV shows from the “educational” category. As mentioned, shorter scene lengths means more flashes of light and over stimulation for a child’s brain. Educational shows seem to have longer scene lengths and less flashes of light (think about standing outside someones home at night and seeing the flashes of light coming from their living room as they watch TV. The shorter scene lengths means more flashes of light, and this is what is bad for a babies delicate brain).

Some shows can enhance cognitive development, such as Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, which has been shown to enhance pretend play and imagination (Singer, 1990. Harvard University Press). The authors of this article explain that most TV shows use pacing of language (speaking too quickly) and pronunciation that is meant for adults. Lastly, TV viewing of non-educational shows may also impede the adequate development of a child being able to regulate their own emotions, which in turn might increase tantrums (for more on the Science Behind Tantrums, click here). This may be due to their loud (educational shows are not as loud) and aggressive content.

Take home message for parents.

As a parent of children ages 1 and 3, I understand that there may be times when parents need a "breather” and that TV might be a simple way to keep children busy. However, as parents, we need to be mindful of HOW MUCH TV our children watch and WHAT TYPE of TV they watch. We need to monitor this, for their sake. There are also other ways to keep children busy. For instance, if you are trying to cook dinner, try giving your child a sticker book or preparing a sensory bin for them with either oats or dried beans (for activity ideas visit our “Activities Page”).

Figure 1. ZImmerman and Christakis. Pediatrics, 2007.

Figure 1. ZImmerman and Christakis. Pediatrics, 2007.

Here is a YouTube video outlining Dr. Christakis’s research on TV viewing and Children.

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