children watching TV television
Study finds children under age of three who watch too much television at higher risk of developing attention deficit disorders (Reuters)

Young children who have early exposure to television are more likely to develop an increased risk of behavioural and learning problems, according to a recent study.

The research, led by Dr Dimitri Christakis, paediatrician and director of the Seattle Children's Research Institute's Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, has found that too much time spent viewing rapid screen images and sounds can make real-time activities seem boring, causing attention problems when children enter the classroom.

"Parents are surprisingly poorly informed about this and in our studies we're working hard to educate them. Parents need to know TV and other media have real and powerful effects on their kids," Christakis said.

He compared the ages of children's exposure to television and discovered that the average age for a child in the 1970s was four years old. Today, it is four months.

Christakis said the findings were significant because of rapid brain growth during early childhood. In the first two years of life the brain triples in size, making it a critical time for learning and development.

The research found that the more children watched television before the age of three, the more likely they were to have attention problems at school age.

For each hour of television children watched before the age of three, the chances of having attention problems increased by 10 per cent. For example, children under the age of three who watched two hours of television per day would be 23 per cent more likely to have attention problems.

The study also found that children who received more cognitive stimulation - including how often their parents spent reading to them, taking them to museums, singing, etc - reduced the chances of attention problems in later life. In fact, each hour of cognitive stimulation reduced the problems by 30 per cent.

When Christakis conducted a test with mice who were overstimulated by light and sound, he found that the mice were much more hyperactive than those in the control group, demonstrating increased movement, general activity and risk-taking.

For short-term memory and learning, the mice were presented with a familiar object and a novel object. The normal mice spent 75 percent of their time with the novel object, while the overstimulated mice spent the same amount of time with both objects. "It was as if they couldn't distinguish the two objects or they didn't care. But one way or another, they were not learning, they were not acting like normal mice," Christakis said.

Two types of television programs were compared in the study: an educational programme with slower movements and sounds, along with an entertainment cartoon program that featured rapid image changes and fast music. It was found that the educational program posed no increased risk of attention problems, while the entertainment program increased the risk of attention problems by 60 percent.

Violent programmes rated the most alarming results, with the risk of attention problems increasing by 110 percent. This was due to the nature of the content being more rapidly sequenced than other types of programs, Christakis said.

Television programmes with rapid sequences therefore "conditioned the mind to that reality which doesn't actually exist", he said.

"Prolonged exposure to rapid image change during a critical period of brain development would pre-condition the mind to expect high levels of stimulation, which leads to inattention in later life."

The pacing of the television programme and its content was key for Christakis. "Early childhood is very important for children and critical to their development. We need more real-time play today and less fast paced media, particularly for children."

To view the talk by Dr Dimitri Christakis, click on the media below: