France has already taken this matter so seriously that in summer 2008 the Government introduced tough new rules to protect the health and development of children under three from the adverse effects of television. In this case, Professor Christakis’ extensive review looked at 78 studies published over the last 25 years and reiterates the findings of numerous studies he has carried out with his colleagues all over the world.
As many as nine in ten children under the age of two watch TV regularly, despite ongoing warnings, and some spend as much as 40 per cent of their waking hours in front of a TV. This is a dangerous situation for their development, and Christakis points out that there has never been one positive study showing demonstrated benefits. Many scientists are worried about children’s language, cognitive skills and attentional capacity when exposed to so much TV.
“The weight of existing evidence suggests the potential for harm and I believe that parents should exercise due caution in exposing infants to excessive media” he says. “For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages TV viewing in the first two years of life, but only six per cent of parents are aware of this advice despite ongoing publicity.”
The Christakis review includes these points:
•29 per cent of parents who took part in a survey of 1,000 American families published in 2007 said they let their infants watch TV because they thought it was “good for their brains”. But claims made by manufacturers are not substantiated by peer-reviewed medical papers and industry studies.But why does television have such a negative effect on children of this age? “We believe that one reason is the fact that it exposes children to flashing lights, scene changes, quick edits and auditory cuts which may be over stimulating to developing brains” says Professor Christakis. “TV also replaces other more important and appropriate activities like playing or interacting with parents.”
•Watching TV programs or DVDs aimed at infants can actually delay language development, according to a number of studies. For example, a 2008 Thai study published in Acta Paediatrica found that if children under 12 months watched TV for more than two hours a day they were six times more likely to have delayed language skills. Another study found that children who watched baby DVDs between seven and 16 months knew fewer words than children who did not.
•Infants as young as 14 months will imitate what they see on a TV screen, but they learn better from live presentations. For example, one study found that children learnt Mandarin Chinese better from a native speaker than they did from a video of the same speaker.
•A study of 1,300 children conducted by Christakis and colleagues in 2004 found a modest association between TV viewing before the age of three and attentional problems at the age of seven, after a wide range of other factors were ruled out.
•In another study, Christakis and colleagues looked at the effects of early TV viewing on cognitive development at school age. They found that children who had watched a lot of TV in their early years did not perform as well when they underwent tests to check their reading and memory skills.
•More than one in five parents who took part in another study said that they got their infants to watch TV when they needed time to themselves. This, says the author, is an understandable and realistic need, but not one that should be actively promoted.
Another way of summing up this news report: TV is not a quality baby sitter.