I couldn’t find this accessible to all online, so I’m posting the full article
The Dangers of Second-Hand TV: What You Watch Can Affect Your Kids
The Wall Street Journal Online (WSJ.com) HEALTH JOURNAL
By TARA PARKER-POPE
When it comes to kids and TV, the real problem may not be what they watch — it may be what you watch.
A recent study linking early TV watching with attention problems in children has bolstered the argument for limiting or even banning television viewing by kids. But lost in the debate about television and kids is the fact that it’s the grown-up shows blaring in the background while kids play that may be the real culprit.
And surprisingly, turning off the television entirely isn’t always best for kids. Some studies show that carefully crafted educational programs for preschoolers, like “Blue’s Clues” and “Sesame Street,” can actually improve a child’s reading or problem-solving skills compared with kids who never watch the shows.
Kids’ shows like SpongeBob are less worrisome than adult programs like game shows blaring in the home.
Last week, the medical journal Pediatrics published a provocative study looking at television-viewing habits of about 2,600 children ages 1‑to‑3 years old. The researchers found that the more television children were exposed to at a young age, the more likely their parents were to report attention problems at age 7.
The study was important because very little is known about the impact of television on very young children, and currently, most pediatricians advise no television for children under 2. But while experts agree kids under two probably shouldn’t watch TV at all, the concern is that the study is also wrongly being used as a broad indictment of allowing kids of any age to watch TV.
The research has some significant limits. For instance, the study authors noted that it isn’t clear whether the television exposure caused the attention problems or whether kids with attention problems were simply more likely to be put in front of the TV or that restless kids are more drawn to television.
More important, because the study data were collected in the 1980s before many popular kids shows like “Teletubbies” were even created, many researchers think it’s unlikely the toddlers were actively watching kids’ shows, but were instead exposed to television in the background.
Having a game show like “Jeopardy!” on in the background may affect how toddlers spend their playtime.
There’s no way to know from the study data what shows the kids were watching, but experts think that with so few kids programs to choose from at the time, it’s more likely that children were simply exposed to regular TV programs watched by other members of the household.
“Very likely they were just in the room when older siblings were watching TV or in the room when parents were watching TV — that’s a critical difference,” says Daniel R. Anderson, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has studied television’s impact on child behavior and development.
Dr. Anderson and other experts say the study bolsters concerns that it’s actually television playing in the background that may most interfere with a developing mind. The distinction is important because many well-meaning parents don’t let their children watch hours of television, but do watch news programs and other shows while their kids play nearby and don’t seem to be paying attention.
But studies show that the TV still affects kids even if they don’t appear to be watching it. Dr. Anderson compared toddler play habits in a quiet setting and while a television played “Jeopardy!” nearby. Even though the toddlers didn’t watch the game show, turning the TV on changed their playtime, prompting them to spend half as much time with a toy before moving on to another toy.
The study suggests that background television can be a subtle distraction and might interfere with concentration and focus. It’s also likely that parents watching TV are more distracted and interacting less with kids.
Other research shows that some TV can actually be good for children. Studies show that preschoolers who watched “Sesame Street” ended up later reading more books than kids who didn’t watch the show. Preschoolers who regularly watched “Gullah Gullah Island” and “Blue’s Clues” developed better problem-solving skills and more patience than kids who weren’t exposed to the shows.
“They had learned ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try another way,’ ” says Jennings Bryant, director of the Institute for Communications Research at the University of Alabama, who has authored several studies on children’s programs. “The kids learned a more patient style of problem solving — the antithesis of the kinds of attention-disorder problems people are talking about.”
Of course, many of these skills can be taught by parents, so parents who want to turn off the television and read or play with their kids shouldn’t now opt to put their kids in front of the TV instead.
But parents who do allow their preschool kids to watch some TV don’t have to feel guilty. Violence is never acceptable for kids, but parents also need to pay attention to the pacing of a show. Shows like “Pokemon” and “Spiderman”
that flicker quickly from scene to scene and move at a fast pace can be overwhelming for very young and even school-age children and interfere with their ability to focus and concentrate.
Meanwhile, slow-paced shows, like “Dora the Explorer” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” are designed to give very young kids enough time to process the information and are more likely to have a beneficial effect.
In the middle are medium-paced programs — like “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Scooby-Doo” — that aren’t particularly educational but are simply mindless entertainment that kids can enjoy as an occasional diversion without parents worrying that they are harmful. “There is some genuinely fine educational programming,” says Dr. Bryant. “We recommend a diet of carefully thought out programming with some time for the “SpongeBobs of the world.”