Every other month, there seems to be another shocking headline on the television-and-my-2 to 3-year-old front: Television is going to give my kid attention deficit disorder; Television is going to lead to obesity; Brainy Babies and similar shows muddle, rather than improve, the toddler brain, and on and on.
Holy TV turning kids into zombies Batman! What are we doing to our kids?
Relax. I have some good news for you.
In short, it is highly unlikely any of these things is going to happen to your kids.
To give you some background, a few years ago, having taught the Effects of the Mass Media for a number of years, and then having kids of my own, I realized, there is so much great research out there about how media effects children, but parents never hear about the results of this research because its mostly buried deep in academic journal publications that use obscure terms like “logistic regression” and “inter-item correlation.” Not exactly edge-of-your-seat reading. So I decided, given my academic and professional training, I would write a book written for parents, a book with no agenda (I really did not care if the research found media was good or bad, I just wanted to write a book on it!), and a book that whittles this complex research down to the essential facts.
Anyway, getting back to those headlines: The problem with these headlines is that journalists are not trained to interpret these academic journals any better than the typical parent.
Instead, what is reported is the bottom line: Whether the effect of TV goes in one direction (good) or the other (bad).
But what journalists forget is something called effect size. Take headache medicine. It’s one thing to say that “pill x” lessens your headache. It’s another to say, “pill x lessens your headache by 4%.” Trust me, when I have a near-migraine, 4% just doesn’t matter.
The same is true for media effects. Take a few of these headlines. In one example, it was reported that watching television significantly increases the chance that a 2-3 year old will develop attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder by age 7. The one story I read said that for each hour of television watched, the chances of developing ADHD increased by 10%.
Seems pretty scary, no? Well, lets look at the facts and the actual, original research a bit closer. First, about 10% of 7 year olds are diagnosed with ADHD. The average 2-3 year old is watching, depending on whose research you look at, about 1.5 to 2.5 hours of television a day. In other words, the average 1-2 hours/day of TV 2-3 year old is 10% likely to develop ADHD by age 7.
What this really means is that for every hour over about 2 hours that your child watches television, the chance of developing ADHD increases 10%. So the child that watches 3 hours of television? They have a 10% plus 10% of 10% chance on getting ADHD. In short, that’s 11%. Going from 10% to 11% is, in my opinion, nothing much to worry about.
But that said, I would never tell you to play dice with your kids. But the fact is you play dice everyday, from driving them to school to allowing them to eat a sweet to having them play in the yard. Dangers potentially lurk everywhere.
It seems to me that losing sleep over the fact that little Johnny watched an extra show yesterday just does not seem worth it!
Indeed, later research noted that educational television appears to have no effect at all in developing ADHD: It’s the fast-paced, non-educational, superhero-type programming that appears to be driving this small effect.
The fact is, research on toddlers and television is in its infancy (pun, I suppose, intended). Future research might find effects ranging from the very good (there is some evidence already to suggest that kids can learn from educational television) to the very bad. For now, there is just not enough research to make clear cut determinations one way or another, and the research is not particularly well developed.
So next time you hear that television is going to turn your child into a zombie, don’t lose too much sleep. But remember, despite the relative lack of research, the research out there is consistent in one key aspect: Kids that are far above average in television viewing are more likely to have issues from obesity to desensitization to violence. So if your 2-3 year old is watching more than 2 hours a day, for certain, you should work on curbing their media consumption. Where there is little evidence on an issue, the best course of action is moderation.
Exclusively written for Parent Wonder. David Dutwin, Ph.D., is the Vice President of SSRS/Social Science Research Solutions and author of Unplug Your Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Happy, Active and Well-Adjusted Children in the Digital Age, which was released about a month ago. For more details, visit www.wiseusemedia.com