Attention problems linked to violence in kids' TV: study

Children's TV shows Arthur and Barney are OK for toddler viewing — but not Rugrats and certainly not Power Rangers, suggests a new U.S. study.

Risk only increased for children under 3

Children's TV shows Arthur and Barney are OK for toddler viewing — but not Rugrats and certainly not Power Rangers, suggests a new U.S. study.

For every hour a day that children under three watched violent child-oriented entertainment, their risk doubled for attention problems five years later, according to the study released Monday in November's issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The University of Washington researchers called a show violent if it involved fighting, hitting people, threats or other violence that was central to the plot or a main character. Shows listed included Power Rangers, Lion King and Scooby Doo.

Even non-violent shows like Rugrats and The Flintstones carried a still substantial — although slightly lower — risk for attention problems, according to theresearchers.

On the other hand, educational shows, including Arthur, Barney and Sesame Street had no association with future attention problems.

The researchers saidthe risks only seemed tooccurin children underthree, perhaps because that is a particularly crucial period of brain development. Those results echo a different study in October that suggested TV-watching has less impact on older children's behaviour than on toddlers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children younger than two and limited TV for older children.

Shows with fighting, hitting seen as violent

Previous research and news reports on TV's effects have tended to view television as a single entity, without regard to content.

But "the reality is that it's not inherently good or bad. It really depends on what they watch," said pediatrics professor Dimitri Christakis, who co-authored the study with researcher Frederick Zimmerman.

Their study involved a nationally representative sample of 967 children whose parents answered government-funded child-development questionnaires in 1997 and 2002. Questions involved television-viewing habits in 1997. Parents were asked in 2002 about their children's behaviour, including inattentiveness, difficulty concentrating and restlessness.

The researchersacknowledged it is observational data that only suggests a link and isn't proof TV habits cause attention problems. Still, they said theythink the connection is plausible.

The shows considered violentand other kids' programs that don't include violence also tend to be very fast-paced, which may hamper children's ability to focus attention, Christakis said.

Shows with violence also send a flawed message, namely "if someone gets bonked on the head with a rolling pin, it just makes a funny sound and someone gets dizzy for a minute and then everything is back to normal," Christakis said.

Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade association for stations and networks including those with entertainment and educational children's TV shows, said he had not had a chance to thoroughly review the research and declined comment on specifics.

Wharton said his group believes "there are many superb television programs for children and would acknowledge that it is important for parents to supervise the media consumption habits of young children."

When considering the parent questionnaires, the researchers took into account other factors that might have influenced the results, including cultural differences and parents' education levels, and still found a strong link between the non-educational shows and future attention problems.

Peggy O'Brien, senior vice-president for educational programming and services at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said violence in ads accompanying shows on commercial TV might contribute to the study results.

She said lots of research about brain development goes into the production of educational TV programming for children and the slower pace is intentional.

"We want it to be kind of an extension of play," rather than fantasy, she said.