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October 17, 2008

Pediatric Points by Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein: The one-eyed monster in our midst

Imagine a product that could make our kids fat, dumb and violent. You wouldn't buy it, right? Well, what if I told you such a product exists and that 99 percent of Americans did buy it and use it every day? Hard to believe? Well, that product is TV and if studies are to be believed, it is wreaking havoc with our kids' lives.

One such study showed that children's programming actually contains more violence than adult-geared shows. Television violence tends to be glamorized and often goes unpunished. Exposure to media violence, including the nightly newscast, can be frightening for young children who have a relative inability to distinguish reality from fiction. The scientific literature has repeatedly substantiated the link between violence observed on TV and violent acts committed by children in the classroom and on the street. Today's programming and advertising are filled with highly sexualized content as well. Teens, striving to fit in, are especially vulnerable to these messages.

TV often makes tobacco, drugs and alcohol look fun or cool. One quarter of all MTV videos contain alcohol or cigarettes. At least one study found a link between the viewing of music videos with later use of alcohol by teenagers.

There are health consequences to our coach potato lifestyle as well. Many studies in recent years have linked television viewing habits with obesity. Time spent in front of the TV is time not spent playing outside or engaging in exercise. Also television advertisers pay good money to ply our kids with images of sweetened and processed foods knowing they will eat more. And they do! On average 100 calories more a day than nonviewers!

And what is all this TV watching doing to our kids' ability to learn and communicate? A 2004 study out of the University of Washington found an association between television exposure at an early age and the development of attention problems at age 7. When I ask parents about the number of hours of TV their children watch in a day, I often hear, "Oh, he doesn't watch it. It's just on." Well, a study published last summer in the journal Child Development found that young children exhibited less focused attention during play when in the presence of such background TV. Another study in 2007 found that television viewing at age 14 was associated with an increased risk of a whole host of academic problems including poor grades, boredom at school, a negative attitude toward school, problems with attention and homework completion and a failure to obtain a post-secondary education.

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