TV and paying attention (to the facts)

A couple days ago the AP reported about a new study that links the amount of time one- and three-year-olds spend watching TV to subsequent attentional problems at age seven. The study, which was published in the April issue of Pediatrics, analyzed interviews from a U.S. Department of Labor longitudinal study and found that for every extra hour a toddler watched TV per day there was a 10% rise in the likelihood that the child would show attentional problems later. The study and accompanying commentary both suggest that, while Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is known to have a significant genetic component, early television viewing might make already susceptible children more likely to manifest symptoms, and they rightly suggest further study. They also point out, however, that one “cannot draw causal inferences from these associations.” For example, though most experts believe ADHD symptoms don’t manifest until well after age three, it is still possible that parents are more likely to park their fidgetty children in front of the TV. Since parents of ADHD children are more likely to have attentional problems themselves, it is also possible that the results are due to parents with attentional problems being more likely to use the television as a babysitter. The article and commentary are both good science: they present their hypothesis, describe their data in detail, and point out both why they think their data supports their conclusions and how they may still be wrong. Their conclusions are well measured given the data: additional research is needed, and if the results are confirmed then attentional problems should join increased aggression and obesity as reasons to limit television viewing in early childhood.

Unfortunately, since the AP broke with the lead that television might permanently “rewire” the developing brain, most of the editorials have not been so measured. WhiteDot (an anti-TV organization) declares “It’s Official: TV Linked to Attention Deficit” and presents the shocker “Are parents who use infant videos such as ‘Baby Einstein’ and ‘Teletubbies’ putting their child at risk for a lifetime of Special Ed classes, school ‘behavioral therapy’ and Ritalin?” The Boston Globe goes one step further, suggesting that “the passive baby sitter we let into the house turned out to be a drug dealer, altering the brain perhaps even more permanently than a bag of dope.” The Philadelphia Inquirer threw in the specter that even Sesame Street might not be safe: “And it had bad news for parents who congratulate themselves that their kids watch only ‘educational’ TV. It didn’t seem to matter what type of shows babies and toddlers watched — whether Sesame Street or Barney or Cartoon Network.” (Not true — the researchers have no information about what kind of TV the children watched, and only concluded that if educational TV isn’t bad then non-educational TV must be even worse to account for the differences found.)

I take away two lessons from this. First, it’s likely that ADHD is yet another condition where genetics and environment interact (ala Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture). Second, the guys writing these editorials clearly watched too much TV when they were toddlers — ’cause they just plain aren’t paying attention!