Lots of TV viewing correlated with ADD. Well, duh.

Reading one of my favorite geeky Web sites, Slashdot, I came across a very interesting article entitled TV Viewing Linked to Attention Problems. The gist of the original source article in British publication New Scientist is that:
“Watching television more than two hours a day early in life can lead to attention problems later in adolescence, according to a large long-term study.”
While the researcher part of my brain, trained from years of graduate school, is crying out that “you can’t conclude causal from correlational data!” I still have to say “Duh, yeah. Watch TV and you lose the ability to focus on things.”

What makes this an interesting topic to us is that we don’t watch much media at all, and our children watch basically zero, or as close to zero as we can reasonably manage. In a typical month they watch no TV (we have no cable, no antenna, no satellite) and maybe one DVD if it’s a special occasion, an average of, what, 30 minutes/week or 3.6 minutes per day.
[by comparison, the Department of Education offers that “On average, children aged 2 to 11 watch about 23 hours of TV per week” which translates to a staggering 49 days/year spent glued to the tube. Yes, one and a half months wasted each year, or, if you multiply it across the 9 years in question, over one entire year of their adolescence watching TV. Scary, scary!] Not infrequently, we are challenged about this decision we’ve made, mostly by well meaning friends and relatives. Sometimes we hear “I agree with that and wish I could do that with my kids” (which baffles me: just turn off the bloody box!) but sometimes we hear “oh, you’re just hurting them in the long run. If you’re too protective you’ll just make it more enticing and when they’re older they’ll be glued to the set”. Obviously we don’t agree.
Nonetheless, this research does demonstrate one of the reasons that we have been very careful with TV and even with which movies we opt to let them watch: our children frequently just sit and focus on one project, one game, one task for a half-hour, hour, or even longer, and we don’t want to do anything to damage that wonderful attention span.
Back to the research. In the New Scientist article, they note that there are a couple of reasons why watching too much TV as a youngster can adversely affect attention span:
“One [explanation] is that the rapid scene changes common to many TV programs may overstimulate the developing brain of a young child, and could make reality seem boring by comparison. “Hence, children who watch a lot of television may become less tolerant of slower-paced and more mundane tasks, such as school work,” [the researcher] writes.”
A second explanation? They offer that up too:
“It is also possible that TV viewing may supplant other activities that promote concentration, such as reading, games, sports and play, he says. The lack of participation inherent in TV watching might also condition children when it comes to other activities.”
I believe that both are true, at least based on our own experience. Children’s TV, and even movies, are exhausting to watch because they have so darn many scene cuts. Just a few days ago I was watching The Incredibles and marveling how it had at least as many cuts as a traditional Hollywood movie, if not more. If that’s the quick flash multi view world our children are being immersed in, no wonder the day-to-day seems so darn mundane.
Anyway, it’s a classic response to research that you cite the research that bolsters your view and is consistent with your worldview, so it should be no surprise that we agree with the findings of this extensive research project.
But what about you, dear reader? Do you believe it’s logical and reasonable to conclude that too much TV causes children to have reduced attention spans? Or, for that matter, do you think the causality might go in the other direction, where children with lower attention spans are naturally more drawn to TV anyway?

22 comments on “Lots of TV viewing correlated with ADD. Well, duh.

  1. We have a TV.. we mostly do some DVDs.. Little House on the Prarie.. maybe some PBS- Reading Rainbow..
    More than we probably should.. far less than most..
    What freaks me out is that I have a friend that has a 5-year-old girl.. she’s seen “Pirates of the Caribbean” uncountable times.. both movies.. and these same parents won’t let the kid watch SpongeBob .. Not that I’m for the yellow Sponge.. but my goodness.. this family is obviously making decisions for what the kid watches.. but they think that Skeletons with swords, guns and cannons hacking and shooting etc and so forth is OK for the kid.. but a dumb starfish is not.. well.. what are they thinking??
    They wonder why the kid is scared of everything.. ..need a liscense to fish.. but not to be a parent.
    I guess I don’t think of TV as the ultimate evil.. it’s a tool like many other of Man’s inventions.. in the wrong hands it is very dangerous.. Most people don’t watch the 2-hours a day with the kids.. they just turn it on and go get on the cell phone and talk about how their kids wont listen to them.. go figure.
    Ok.. sorry.. rant done.

  2. You are absolutely correct, it is not possible to imply causation from correlational data, and we don’t. We have tried our best to control for other variables that may explain our findings, including early indicators of attention problems. When we took these into account, the effect of TV remained. While this does not prove causation, it is compelling.
    The “well duh” reaction is a common one, and understandable. For years people have been telling us that TV causes attention problems, and somehow it makes intuitive sense. However, when we started looking for actual hard evidence, we were surprised at how little there was. That lack of evidence prompted us to investigate the issue, resulting in the paper that was published in the journal “Pediatrics”.
    Erik Landhuis
    (co-author of the paper on TV viewing and attention problems)

  3. My dad sent me that link yesterday. It’s amazing how much TV people watch these days…. We had a rule at my house when we were growing up: no more than 1 hour of TV a day, and it had to ‘educational’. That was not a perfect solution by any means, but my parents were trying their best.
    Now DH and I don’t even have TV service. I must say that I almost never miss it.

  4. You know, I experimented with myself on this. For a very long time, our tv was just never on. I stopped watching it, and so did my husband. We read, we went for walks, we TALKED. When the tv did finally come back on, I was surprised at how totally stupid and unentertaining I found it. I don’t watch it much anymore, and my 15-month-old never does. We plan on building up a suitable DVD collection for his occasional viewing and spending the rest of the time enjoying each other! It’s amazing what is accomplished in a day, and how much more relaxed I feel, without the television!

  5. “oh, you’re just hurting them in the long run. If you’re too protective you’ll just make it more enticing and when they’re older they’ll be glued to the set”.
    –This is like saying, “If you don’t let your kids smoke, they’re just going to go out when they’re older and smoke even more.” Children (and adults) can truly become addicted to electronic media. Fostering an active, non-couch-potato lifestyle is the only antidote to this.
    A fantastic book on the subject is called The Plug-In Drug. I don’t know the author(s) off the top of my head, but I recommend the book to every parent I know.

  6. Thats Funny!! My Parents And Friends Always Makes Comments Because I dont allow My Children to watch Tv..Heres My opinion .. I feel When Parents Let there children watch Tv There using it as a baby sitter oh and I let it be known to everyone that is how I feel..I hate Tv …But I was brought up in a household that had a tv in every room of the house but mine and the tvs where on 24 hours a day and of course if I wanted to talk to my parents it was always Hold On Im watching this!!Now Of Course I do Have 2 Plasmas in my House with every game system that has came out hooked to them that only get played with on Saturdays..LOL..(Were Never home on Saturdays):-)I do have a 10 year old so I have to indulge him a little..:-)Im a electronics Freak (I Love Technology)Peopleare quite confused How we have all this stuff but Dont watch Tv..My Son Has always had straight a’s and is the top of his class every year , Hes not disrupted , the teachers and other parents love him..Then they ask what have we did to him to make him so good and of course I reply ( We Dont watch Tv!!)I Absolutly Believe Tv Disrupts Kids Brains , They Dont Have to ever THink if there watching tv!!

  7. Amy, were you watching TV when you were typing your response above? PLEASE check your grammar, punctuation, capitalization and all the rest before you post online. I had to read your post a few times to make sure I was understanding. Not that I never have the occasional typo, but come on…

  8. If I could turn back time….if I could find a way….I wouldn’t have owned a TV while raising my children. A cousin in his late 50’s who teaches school advises that they have had to rework how they teach children because of the attention span issue. After being exposed at such a young age, it does affect their brain. Hmmm, I have also taken a Research Methods class….late bloomer, finishing my degree in my 40’s. After learning how easily the results of research can be skewed, well I am not sure I don’t trust anecdotal evidence more now!

  9. I had the same experience as Diane…one year before our children were born we decided “for Lent” to give up TV. Amazing how much time we started to have! And after that, TV just really seemed inane and over-stimulating.
    For many years we didn’t own a TV. Now we have a tiny one that we (the parents only) watch DVDs. Our children watch no TV, only rarely at other people’s houses or in restaurants.
    Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, despite its strong title, really does have a lot of cogent discussion of the actual experience of watching TV (or modern movies for that matter) and what effect that has on our consciousness — e.g. all the quick cuts, highly stimulating visuals, etc.
    Once my young cousin (a mother of four) said that it was “unfair” that my husband and I could watch TV but not my kids. I thought, is it “unfair” that I don’t let my 5 yo son drink a beer? Or drive the car? I don’t think TV is appropriate for young children at all, and only in small doses for older children.

  10. A very interest read. I’m afraid my son is only 16 weeks old so I am unable to give any insight into potential ADD caused by television watching but I was very worried by how immersed my son Noah even at his young age becomes if he catches a glimpse of television.
    His focus becomes practically unbreakable without physical intervention such as spinning him away or covering his eyes.
    This in itself has lead to my wife and I readdress ing out TV habits especially between the hours of 8 and 7.
    Our new philosophy (for now) is why watch rubbish when you can go outside and explore for real.
    I’m off now to read another post about Dads breasts that I just noticed.

  11. When I was 11 years old I went to camp for a month. There was no TV, no movies, no video games, no screens, period. I had been a hard-core TV watcher, watching well above the average for my age, so while I was at camp this was a struggle for me. But upon returning home I couldn’t stand the TV; it wasn’t the quality of the programming, or being inside on a beautiful day, or missing more worthwhile activities that bothered me. It was the constant scene changes and motion. I literally got dizzy watching even ‘tame’ shows like Mary Tyler Moore and the evening news. It was then that I realized that TV images change much faster than real life. Even within one scene, what one is watching constantly changes as the viewing angle shifts. I remember the rapid shifts from close up to panoramic being especially jarring. What must the brain do to adjust to such rapid shifts in stimuli? Has anyone done brain scans or MRI’s while TV is being viewed? I say if there’s no hard evidence that TV adversely affects attention span, then the appropriate research just hasn’t been done yet.

  12. Aim HIGH!
    I agree with the “Kill Your Television” concept. People who want their children to achieve something in life would do well to follow such advice.
    No one at a top of their field watches TV. They are too busy doing important stuff. (Try this: ask a person who excels at something what happened on “Lost” on ABC or who lost on “American Idol”…see if they know.)
    If you don’t care if your kid is a high-flier, that’s fine. But expose them (and yourselves) to important stuff, and life becomes more interesting, fulfilling, and financially secure.
    There exists a lot of peer pressure in the world for both adults and children to keep up with popular culture. RESIST! You’ll thank me in the long-run.
    In 20 years, do you want your kids to remember the episodes of various TV shows? Or do you want them to have 20 years exposure to important math, science, history, language skills, writing skills and other topics worthy of remembering?
    I hope this helps. Cheers!

  13. We did not have TV growing up. I watched occasionally at a friend’s house but never more than one one hour program. Her parents and mine had similar philosophies on parenting with the result that we were more likely to be playing around in her dress up box than watching TV.
    I am in agony about how to deal with TV now. My husband and I are expecting our first child later this year. I would love to raise this baby similar to the way I was raised, with tons of books and music, including radio, but not much TV. Problem is, my husband is a movie addict and one of the many combat vets who needs to have some sort of background noise playing at all time. I understand his need, to him the TV running represents safety and civilization, but haven’t figured out how to balance his legitimate need with my equally legitimate desire to raise children with a love of learning that doesn’t come in five minute bits.

  14. So my parents had the same philosophy. I grew up with no TV – we didn’t even own one, and once we did, our watching was VERY limited and strictly controlled. We didn’t even have a video player. But guess what…I have ADD. BADLY. My attention span has always sucked, I’m always trying to do 9 things at once. Oh and I ended up pretty much on the middle media-wise. I watch a good bit of TV, but not anywhere near as much as most people I know. What does this mean?
    Keeping kids away from TV is certainly a good thing. I don’t let my baby watch any. We don’t even have it on when he is awake. But don’t think that by doing this (or anything else) that you are truly forming who they are……or that you will ever be able to control their behavior.

  15. I don’t believe that TV programming is causing attention span problems. I would be more concerned with the content of a particular TV programming than the quickness of scene changes. I would be more concerned with kids that watch TV 3 feet from the screen as opposed to 10 feet. I would be more concerned with TVs causing epileptic seizures than ADD.
    Using the TV in the home to replace your interaction with your kids is probably not a good idea. Not because it might cause ADD later in life, but because you’ve allowed something/someone else to teach your children, rather than teaching them yourself. Use the TV as an educational tool, and for the occasional family entertainment… that’s really what the TV is for. Determine what’s good and what’s bad, and monitor what they watch.
    It’s all about balance. If you didn’t have to work so much, then you’d have time to play with your kids. If you had more time to play with your kids, your kids would be better to know what’s good and bad and if they know what’s good and bad, they’ll learn to make better decisions in life.
    My parents didn’t set any rules on when we could watch TV or not. We were given the free choice to go outside and play, or watch TV, and often, we would choose to go outside and play. Sure we watched TV… who here does not know Mr. Rogers or Tom & Jerry? Are our lives ruined by watching Saturday morning cartoons and Sesame Street? I think not.
    Don’t confuse attention deficit with superior multi-tasking ability =)

  16. I agree with Jackie and Anna about the relationship between ADD and tv. I think that sometimes in studies, especially these days, that a medical condition is often confused with an induced condition by behavior. ADD is something a person is born with that effects how the person operates, on the other hand attention span is something we can shorten or lengthen depending on the activities we chose, it is a skill.
    So I think a better question is “does tv affect the attention span of people (children or adults)?” The answer – probably, but I think it depends on the amount watched.
    That said I fully support not allowing children to watch tv. I feel that watching tv inhibits skills such as creativity and ingenuity. I also think it has a big role in childhood obesity. Plus I have found that most television, even the programs geared toward young children, are inappropriate in content and teach immoral behavior; it’s amazing how much junk is rolled in to 30 min.

  17. I am 42, grew up without a TV, and am currently raising my 6 year old without a TV (with the full support of my husband). My parents have never owned one, and one of my two sisters does have one (per her husband’s preference).
    I think that there are so many other things to do, learn, enjoy and experience in this life that I’ll never have time to get to all of them. So the decision to be TV-free was very logical as it seems to be a terrific waste of time and doesn’t seem to provide people with much in the way of rewarding and enriching experiences.
    How much better to experience and learn from life and from people, commercial-free and agenda-free. We enjoy movies and DVD’s, especially because we can choose what and when. We spend our days talking, moving, pondering, creating, wondering, reading, exploring, etc. etc. and I wish that more people would turn off the TV for a few weeks and see how wonderfully they will survive.
    p.s. Yes, I do work outside of the home. And, No, I don’t feel that I’m missing out on any information about the world around us, there are lots of great newspapers and online resources that cover more significant events than TV does, and with a lot more depth. Take the plunge, try it.

  18. Wow, after reading some of your comments parents, as a 20 year old college student with ADD. Maybe in hindsight I am glad my parents didn’t control me like a puppet, and let me learn from my own experiences. Maybe I am glad I have ADD, if it was the price I paid for watching TV and enjoying my childhood. Your going to end up raising children that are as anal as your are parents. And that is a SCARY proposition. Loosen up the reigns parents, your children will thank you later.

  19. Has anyone ever considered that it is not the television that is the issue, but the likelyhood that the children who watch significant amounts of television are not being taught by their parents how to maintain focus for an extended period of time? Attention span is a skill that must be fostered and developed, it doesn’t just appear. As our society puts increasing emphasis on immediate gratification and, especially in the case of children these days, overstimulation (are you aware how difficult it is to find toys, walkers, etc. for children that aren’t loaded with sounds, noises, and moving parts so that a child can learn to entertain themselves with simple toys and an imagination?), it is no wonder that fewer parents are taking the time to develop an attention span in their children. My suggestion? Stop blaming outside influences and put the responsibility where it belongs. . . with the parents.

  20. Marie and others are right! It’s not whether TV is an effective teacher or not. It’s that the best learning happens through parent-child interaction, an obvious notion supported yet again by a recent article in Parenting magazine cited at http://www.babiesandtv.com/. Turn off the set and relate to your kid: That’s the best approach.

  21. I think that one of the common mistakes people make when they hear that television can RAISE THE RISK of ADD/ADHD or other learning and behavioral disorders in children is that somehow they believe that means that TV causes said problems. RAISING an already present risk for an attention disorder is WAY different then CAUSING an attention disorder.
    With this in mind, I have been arguing with my in-laws over the television lately because my son is AT RISK for ADD because it runs in my family. In my frustration over not being able to get my mother-in-law to respect my point of view and parenting decisions to ban television watching for my three month old son until he is at least two (preferably 3 or 4), I posted a blog on another site that was basically a vent. The profound number of mothers that replied back to me and said that they allow their children to watch television, that it in no ways causes problems for their kids, and that its a great learning tool astounded me. The thing that got me the most was the mothers that kept saying, tv doesn’t cause ADD or other learning and behavioral problems. I wanted to scream and shake these people…I never said it CAUSED these, I said it RAISED THE RISK of these problems (huge difference). They all seemed to act like I was an uneducated idiot that was making things up as an excuse to keep my child from television.
    Is television so important to our culture that we MUST let our children watch it? Can we not even admit that it might actually raise the risk of a potential problem? and because we are not willing to admit that it might raise said risk, must we twist words to suit how we feel?
    After several days of arguing with these seemingly uneducated mothers who are unwilling to see a different view point (and read what I was typing, not what they decided I was saying) I was SO glad to run across this post, it has made me feel so much better about my choice to keep my three month old child from the television as my husband and I have agreed upon.

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