Television Time a Health Hazard for Children
November 22, 2009
A potentially dangerous substance found in nearly every Oregon home -- and many day care centers -- threatens thousands of Oregon kids with a life plagued by heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
The threat is television, and before you dismiss it, know that scientists have mountains of evidence suggesting that too much TV viewing is very bad for children.
One example: The link between violent media and aggressive behavior is stronger than the link between calcium and bone mass, stronger than the link between not using condoms and HIV, almost as strong as the link between smoking and lung cancer.
Speaking of which, kids who watch at least four hours of TV a day are 524 percent as likely to smoke as kids who watch less than two hours. Perhaps less surprising, children glued to the set tend to move less, eat more junk food and get fat.
"This is a public health issue, not a family values issue," said Dr. Hilary Wells, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente's Tualatin Medical Center.
Time spent watching a screen is time kids are not moving, playing or interacting with other people, activities that increase intelligence and keep weight down. And it doesn't much matter what they're watching, especially for younger kids: Sesame Street's no better than Nascar for a 1-year-old, and children's programs generally contain more violence than other shows.
Television, Internet video and computer games lead to enough health problems that the American Academy of Pediatrics urges all pediatricians to ask patients how much on-screen media they watch and whether they have a TV or Internet connection in their room. The pediatricians' group says kids should have no more than two hours of screen entertainment a day -- none at all for kids under 2.
"Most kids are well above and beyond the limit," Wells said.
In Oregon, state surveys show more than 80 percent of 2-year-olds watch some TV every day, with 17 percent averaging more than two hours a day. By middle school, half of kids watch two or more hours of TV on an average school day.
Parents may not even realize how much TV younger children watch. A survey of 168 day care centers released today found that preschoolers in home-based day cares watch an average of 2.4 hours of TV a day, well above the recommended healthy level. Kids in commercial centers watched less but still averaged almost a half-hour of daily TV time.
The pediatricians' two-hour limit comes from extensive research showing that harm rises with screen time. For each hour of TV a young child watches daily, they are 10 percent more likely to have attention problems, 6 percent more likely to be overweight and significantly less likely to read, be social or do well in first grade.
Television is a triple whammy for weight gain, both in kids and adults.
"Screen time is inactive time," said Emily York, a psychologist who works with overweight adults at Legacy Good Samaritan Weight Management Institute. "And when people are spending more time doing that they tend to spend less time being active."
Many people also engage in "mindless eating" while watching TV, York said, eating until their food is gone or the program finishes instead of consuming just enough to curb their hunger.
And the average kid sees 10,000 food ads on TV each year, many for fast food, sugary cereals and other unhealthy eats, said Sara Sloan, who works with Oregon's Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
"It's kind of scary, isn't it?" said Sloan, who is part of the Healthy Kids Watch Less TV Coalition, a group of state, county and nonprofit health workers hoping to convince more Oregonians to limit TV time.
The suggested ban on video under age 2 comes from a more fundamental process: The massive growth of a baby's brain.
"In young children, kids that watch more TV have language delays, cognitive delays and may have attention trouble later on," Wells said.
Kids learn a massive amount about their world, and especially language, in their first two years. They learn language best by watching their parents talk and read to them. If a TV is on, even just playing in the background, then learning is less likely to happen, Wells said. One study showed that for every hour a child under 2 spends watching screen media each day, they will learn six to eight fewer words -- a big setback since the average 18-month-old knows roughly 15 words.
That's true even for so-called educational programs from public TV such as "Sesame Street" to private videos like Baby Einstein. No program has ever shown any evidence of improving brain development of kids under 2, but they do seem to hurt. Disney, which owns the brand, recently offered to refund parents $15.99 for Baby Einstein DVDs after a consumer group threatened to sue the company for falsely implying the videos make kids smarter.
Kids who have TVs in their own room -- which includes one-fourth of toddlers -- face extra risks, the pediatricians' association estimates. Kids with their own TVs have a 31 percent higher risk of becoming obese and twice the risk of smoking.
Bedroom TVs probably add risk because parents don't know just how much TV the kids are watching or what kind of shows. Tobacco and TV likely link through kids watching dramas and movies in which characters smoke. And the link between bullying and television comes from the massive amount of video violence the average U.S. child sees -- 200,000 violent acts by age 18.
While health experts know most people watch some TV or play computer games, they urge parents to work harder to limit the amount and kinds of media their kids view. Parents should pick programs appropriate for a child's age, Wells said, and the fewer commercials the better. Kids under 8, who can't reliably separate fantasy from reality, should be shielded from violent shows.
Parents also need to limit computer time. Wells says children should feel free to use computers as much as they need for school work, "but above or beyond that, only one or two hours" should be spent with computers and TV combined.
And parents should not allow TVs or computers in kids' bedrooms, Wells said.
"We would certainly suggest keeping the TV in a more central location so that parents can monitor it," she said. "I say the same for the computer."
Health experts say kids 2 and older should only watch TV and use computers for two hours a day, not counting computer use for homework. Kids under 2 should never use screen media. Kids who exceed these guidelines are more likely to:
Have high blood pressure
Bully other children
Have sleeping problems
Develop attention-deficit disorder
Lag behind in language and social skills