The more little Tommy and Tina are parked in front of the TV before age 3, the greater risk they have of developing Attention Deficit Disorder, according to a startling report released today.
Researchers found that each hour preschoolers spend watching the boob tube daily increases their chances - by 10 percent - of developing a hyperactivity disorder by age 7.
Symptoms are marked by reduced ability to concentrate, difficulty in organizing and impulsive behavior, pediatricians say.
"This study suggests that there is a significant and important association between early exposure to television and subsequent attentional problems," said Dimitri Christakis, a doctor at Children's Hospital in Seattle who headed the study.
"There is a tremendous and growing reliance on television for a variety of reasons. However, parents should be advised to limit their young child's television viewing."
Frederick Zimmerman, of the University of Washington and a co-author of the study, said it was impossible to say what a safe level of TV viewing would be for children in the study age groups of between 1 and 3.
"Each hour has an additional risk," he said.
"You might say there's no safe level, since there's a small but increased risk [with each hour]. Things are a trade-off. Some parents might want to take that risk."
The study showed 36 percent of the 1-year-olds watched no TV, 37 percent watched one-to-two hours daily - raising the corresponding risk 10 to 20 percent. Fourteen percent watched three-to-four hours and 13 percent watched five hours or more.
Among the 3-year-olds, only 7 percent watched no TV, 44 percent watched one-to-two hours daily, 27 percent watched three-to-four hours daily, almost 11 percent watched five-to-six hours daily, and about 10 percent watched seven hours or more daily.
The data, based on 1,345 children, found that the tots watched an average of 2.2 hours per day at age 1 and 3.6 hours per day at age 3. But some watched 12 hours or more. Nearly 30 percent had a TV in their bedroom.
Between 3 percent and 5 percent of children in the United States are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. The symptoms do not typically show up until children are around age 7.
The researchers didn't know what shows the children watched, but Christakis said content likely isn't the culprit.
Instead, he said, unrealistically fast-paced visual images, typical of most TV programming, may alter normal brain development.
Jennifer Kotler, who produces children's programming including "Sesame Street," said more variables should be explored such as whether content or watching TV with a parent makes a difference.
"There's a lot of research . . . that supports the positive benefits of educational programming," Kotler said.
The study appears in the April issue of Pediatrics.
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