Too much TV increases kids risk of attention and learning difficulties

Teenagers who watch television for three or more hours per day may have a higher risk of attention and learning difficulties in their adolescent and early adult years, according to a report in the May issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Children and teens in industrialized nations spend an average of two or more hours per day watching television, with more than 90 percent of viewing time watching entertainment and general audience programming, according to background information in the article. Researchers hypothesize that watching entertainment programming might contribute to learning problems because it takes time that might otherwise be dedicated to reading and homework, requires little intellectual effort, promotes problems with attention and contributes to disinterest in school.

Jeffrey G. Johnson, Ph.D., Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, and colleagues studied 678 families in upstate New York. Parents and children were interviewed about television habits and school problems three times between 1983 and 1993, when the children were an average of 14, 16 and 22 years old. Between 2001 and 2004, when the children in the study had reached an average age of 33, they provided information about their secondary and post-secondary education, including whether they graduated from high school or attended college.

At age 14, 225 (33.2 percent) of the teens reported that they watched three or more hours of television per day. "Television viewing time at mean age 14 years was associated with elevated risk for subsequent frequent attention difficulties, frequent failure to complete homework assignments, frequent boredom at school, failure to complete high school, poor grades, negative attitudes about school (i.e., hates school), overall academic failure in secondary school and failure to obtain post-secondary (e.g., college, university, training school) education," the authors write. "These associations remained significant after the covariates were controlled." These covariates included family characteristics and previous problems with thinking, learning and memory.

The researchers also conducted 14 analyses to investigate associations between attention and learning problems at age 14 and subsequent television habits. Only two of these analyses suggested any association, indicating that television watching contributes to learning difficulties and not vice versa. "The results suggest that although youths with attention or learning problems may spend more time watching television than do youths without these difficulties, this tendency may be unlikely to explain the preponderance of the association between television viewing and attention and learning difficulties during adolescence," they write.

Overall, the findings have important preventive implications, the authors continue. "They suggest that by encouraging youths to spend less than three hours per day watching television, parents, teachers and health care professionals may be able to help reduce the likelihood that at-risk adolescents will develop persistent attention and learning difficulties," they conclude. Future studies could investigate whether promoting other types of activities,such as athletics, music or arts, also could help reduce the risk of learning problems during the teen years.


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