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Kids, TV and the risk of attention problems

A NEW STUDY in the journal Pediatrics found that young children who watch television are more likely to suffer attention problems. If only the parents would pay attention.

The study of 1,300 kids found that 1-year-olds and 3-year-olds who watched just one hour of television daily had 10 percent more risk of attention problems by age 7 than children who watched no television at all. And the more television, the more risk. One-year-olds who watched three to four hours of television had a 30 percent to 40 percent increased risk of attention problems compared to children whose parents kept the TV off.

"Our results have some important implications if replicated in future studies," wrote lead author Dimitri A. Christakis, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle. "First, we added inattention to the previously studied deleterious consequences of excessive television viewing, including violent behavior and obesity.

"Second, our findings suggest that preventive action can be taken with respect to attentional problems in children. Limiting young children's exposure to television as a medium during formative years of brain development consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendations may reduce children's subsequent risk of developing" attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

If you said television was crack cocaine, frying the circuits of kids and turning them into fat, illiterate thugs, politicians would demand mandatory 10-year sentences for neglectful parents, which basically means the incarceration of nearly every parent in the nation. Of course, most parents never intend to neglect their kids when they park them in front of the screen. But as the evidence mounts that TV rewires our kids, we must rewire ourselves. We can no longer use the excuse that we're too frazzled to stop electronic drug dealers from taking over our neighborhoods and hooking our children. We are not going to change television from being a universal fact of life, since 99 percent of children in the United States live in a home with a TV. What people can change is how many TVs surround them and how long they stay on.

Half of American children live in homes where there are three or more TVs. More than one third of all children 6 years old and under have a television in their bedroom, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Children 6 and under spend two hours a day in front of a screen and only 39 minutes reading or being read to.

Two out of every three small children live in homes where the TV is on at least half the time, and one out of every three small children live in homes where the TV is on nearly all the time. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2003 report "Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers," 56 percent of children in non-heavy TV homes can read by the age of 6, compared to only 34 percent of children in heavy TV homes.

So the time has come, not just for TV Turn-off Week, which is April 19-25, but TV Throwout Month. Many American homes have a TV for every person, which surely makes it more difficult for each family member to know each other as a person. If people want to throw down $3,000 for a home theater to cuddle around, fine. But get the TVs out of the kids' bedrooms. The statistics all but guarantee that a kid will flip on the latest rerun of Star Wars before picking up a book on the solar system.

Ban TV during the school week. Until the statistics show a dramatic change, it ought to be as much a law as curfew. Last year, the College Board's National Commission on Writing reported that the average fourth grader spent about six times more time watching television than writing. In high school, 75 percent of high school seniors say they no longer receive written assignments in history and social studies. But they watch on average 3 hours of TV a day.

If people who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, then people who do not learn that history exists are just plain doomed.

Three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics saw enough of the studies on the effects of television to declare that older children should be limited to one to two hours of daily entertainment media. The academy recommended no television for children 2 and under. The latest study on television and attention problems makes it even more important to pay attention to what we are doing to our kids.

So often, we park our kids in front of the electronic baby sitter because we are fried. That excuse is no longer valid now that we know that the passive baby sitter we let into the house turned out to be a drug dealer, altering the brain perhaps even more permanently than a bag of dope.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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