MONDAY, July 4, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The effect of television on children has been debated ever since the first sets were turned on.
Now three new studies find that too much tube time can lower test scores, retard learning and even predict college performance.
The reports appear in the July issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
In the first report, researchers studied the effect that having a TV in a child's bedroom can have on third graders. "We looked at the household media environment in relation to academic achievement on mathematics, reading and language arts tests," said study author Dina L.G. Borzekowski, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Borzekowski and her colleague, Dr. Thomas Robinson of Stanford University, collected data on 386 third graders and their parents about how much TV the children watched, the number of TV sets, computers and video game consoles in the household and where they were. They also collected data on how much time the children spent using the different media, as well as the time spent doing homework and reading.
The researchers found that the media in the household, where it is and how it is used can have a profound effect on learning. "We found that the household media environment has a very close association with performance on the different test scores," Borzekowski said.
"A child who has a TV in his or her bedroom is likely to have a score that is eight points lower on a mathematics test compared to a child who doesn't have a TV in the bedroom," she noted. These children also scored lower on the reading and language arts tests.
However, children who have access to a home computer are likely to have higher scores on each of the tests compared with children who don't have access to a home computer, Borzekowski noted.
The reasons why TV has this negative effect are not clear, Borzekowski said. "When there's TV in the bedroom, parents are less likely to have control over the content and the amount watched," Borzekowski said. "They are also unable to know how early or how late the set is on. This seems to be associated with kids' performance on academic tests."
Borzekowski believes that content and the time the TV is on may be the primary reasons for its negative effect. "If the TV is in the family room, then parents can see the content of what children are watching," she said. "Parents can choose to sit alongside and watch, or turn the set off. A simple and straightforward, positive parenting strategy is to keep the TV out of the child's bedroom, or remove it if it's already there."
In the second report, Dr. Robert J. Hancox from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, and colleagues found, regardless of your intelligence or social background, if you watch a lot of TV during childhood, you are a lot less likely to have a college degree by your mid-20s.
In their study, the researchers followed 1,037 people born in 1972 and 1973. Every two years, between the ages of 5 and 15, they were asked how much television they watched. The researchers found that those who watched the most television during these years had earned fewer degrees by the time they were 26.
"We found that the more television the child had watched, the more likely they were to leave school without any qualifications," Hancox said in a prepared statement. "Those who watched little television had the best chance of going on to university and earning a degree."
Hancox's team found that watching TV at an early age had the most effect on graduating from college. "An interesting finding was that although teenage viewing was strongly linked to leaving school without any qualifications, it was earlier childhood viewing that had the greatest impact on getting a degree," he said. "This suggests that excessive television in younger children has a long-lasting adverse effect on educational performance."
In the third paper, Frederick J. Zimmerman and Dr. Dimitri A. Christakis from the University of Washington report that, for very young children, watching TV can result in lower test scores in mathematics, reading recognition and reading comprehension.
"We looked at how much television children watched before age 3 and then at ages 3 to 5," Zimmerman said. "We found that for children who watched a small amount of TV in the earlier years, there was considerable beneficial effect compared to children who watched a lot of TV."
For children aged 3 to 5, the effect was not as clear, Zimmerman said. "There were some beneficial effects of watching TV on reading, but no beneficial effects for math or vocabulary," he noted. "The worst pattern was to watch more than three hours of TV before age 3. Those kids had a significant disadvantage compared to the other kids."
Parents should follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation, which is no TV for children under 2, Zimmerman said. "Personally, I feel the cutoff should be children under 3, because there is just not any good content for children under 3."
One expert believes that TV can have both positive and negative effects, but it all depends on what children are watching.
"Content matters," said Deborah L. Linebarger, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who co-authored an accompanying editorial. "Educational content has been found to be related to performance on school readiness tests, higher grades when they are teenagers, whereas, non-educational content tends to be associated with lower academic performance."
Another expert agrees. "TV watching takes up space that could be used by more useful things," said Dr. Christopher P. Lucas, a clinical coordinator at the Early Childhood Evaluation and Treatment Program at the New York University Child Study Center. "TV is not necessarily toxic, but is something that has to be done in moderation; something that balances the other needs of the child for healthy development."
Lucas puts the responsibility for how much TV kids watch and what they watch squarely on parents. "The amount of TV watching certainly has a link with the reduced amount of time reading or doing homework," he said. "The key is the amount of control parents have in limiting the amount of access. Get the TV out of the bedroom; be aware of what is being watched; limit the amount of TV watching."
The American Academy of Pediatrics can tell you more about children and television viewing.