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Screen Time May Cause Attention Problems In Children

July 6, 2010

Psychologists said Monday that long hours in front of the television could make it difficult for kids to concentrate in school.

They said that while researchers are still divided on the issue, the findings coincide with earlier studies on the effects of television watching in kids.

“What we don’t know at this point is why TV and video games really would cause attention problems,” Douglas A. Gentile, who worked on the study, told Reuters Health.

Gentile said that too much screen time had also been linked to increased aggression and weight gain.

He said the new study was the first to follow how video games may impact kids’ concentration skills over time.

While the research does not directly prove that long screen time causes psychological issues, “we know that earlier television watching was not caused by later attention problems,” Gentile told Reuters.

The team followed over 1,300 school-age children who were assisted by their parents in logging in their TV and gaming hours for a year.  They then asked teachers to answer questions about how the children behaved in school.  The teachers observed whether they had difficulty staying on task or if they often interrupted others.

Those who watched a lot of TV or played hours of video games had slightly more problems concentrating on schoolwork.

Those children who spent over two hours a day in front of the screen increased their odds of exceeding the average level of attention problems by 67 percent.

Extreme cases of attention difficulty sometimes lead to a diagnosis of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which between three and seven percent of school-age children suffer from.  However, the researchers did not diagnose any kids with that condition.

The team also tested undergraduate students by using psychological questionnaires designed to reveal ADHD.

The study showed that the older students who reported two hours of daily screen time doubled their risk of landing above average in attention deficit disorder.

According to Gentile, the impact of TV and video games depended on lots of actors, and was not necessarily dramatic.

“Not every kid is going to be influenced to the same amount,” he said. “No one thing causes our behavior. It’s a combination of all the pushes and pulls that we get — the media is just one variable.”

Miriam Mulsow, an expert in ADHD who was not involved in the study, told Reuters that she did not think TV or video games could cause attention problems or ADHD.

“There are parents out there who are doing the best they can, but are working multiple jobs and can’t afford child care,” said Mulsow, of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “What worries me is that those parents will think they cause their children to have ADHD. I don’t think that’s the case, and I don’t think those parents should feel bad.”

However, she added, “if a child has a tendency toward attention problems then sitting in front of the TV not getting enough exercise would exacerbate it.”

She said that she agreed a child should not be allowed to watch over two hours of TV a day.  “I didn’t even allow my kids to watch that much,” she told Reuters Health.

Gentile said the study’s results also send a positive message to parents whose kids are plagued by attention problems.

“This study perhaps gives parents a first line of defense because (screen time) is something they can control,” he said. “The research suggests that parents actually are in a more powerful position to help their children than they realize.”

Gentile runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University. The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.

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