Too much TV in childhood might have negative ramifications later in life, a new study finds.
The results show the amount of time spent in front of the tube at 2 years of age is linked with academic, social and health problems at age 10. For instance, too much TV is associated with less engagement in classroom activities, less exercise on weekends, and a higher chance of being picked on by classmates in the fourth grade.
The findings held true even after the researchers accounted for many factors that could have influenced the results, including: the child's gender, sleep schedule, temperament problems, mother's education, number of parents in the household, and even how much TV the children watched when they were in fourth grade.
Early TV-viewing might have long-term influences, because it happens at a time when both the brain and lifestyle habits are still developing, according to study researcher Linda S. Pagani, a researcher at Université de Montréal in Canada.
"Television is a passive intellectual activity, television is a passive physical activity," Pagani told LiveScience, "And when it occurs early on, during the time that brain expansion is going on, during the time when lifestyle habits and preferences are talking place — they're kind of crystallizing — it can have extremely negative long-term effects."
However, it is important to note the study only showed an association, and not a direct causal link. Also, the findings are based on self-reports from parents and teachers, which might have affected the results.
The results are published in the May issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.
While previous research has looked at the effects of TV-viewing on children, few have examined the implications for viewing at ages as young as 2.
The study involved about 1,300 children born in Quebec, Canada, between 1997 and 1998, who were followed up at various points in their lives. Parents were asked to report how much TV their kids watched when they were 2 years old (29 months), and again at 4 years old (53 months).
When the children were in fourth grade (about 10 years old), their teachers were asked to rate their math and reading performance as well as other aspects of classroom activity, such as how well they pay attention and cooperate with others. The teachers also assessed social interactions, including whether or not the kids were aggressive or bullies themselves.
Lots of TV time
The average time spent watching TV at 29 months was 8.82 hours per week, or about 1.2 hours per day. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under 2 watch no TV, and children over age 2 watch no more than 2 hours per day).
Every extra hour beyond average was associated with:
- A 7-percent decrease in classroom engagement
- A 10-percent increase in likelihood of being picked on by classmates
- A 13-percent decrease in physical activity on weekends
- A 9-percent increase in soft drink consumption
- A 5-percent increase in body mass index (a ratio of a person's height and weight that is considered to be an indicator of body fat percentage).
While TV-watching might have benefits in terms of providing children and adults with information, parents need to be aware of the possible consequences, both social and academic, for such habits, Pagani said.
"The time that their kids watch television is the time that their kids are not doing other intellectual pursuits," Pagani said. "You have to be learning your social skills; you have to be learning how to operate."
The study was funded by Canada's Social Science and Humanities Research Council Intentional Collaborations Fund.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.