Why they call it the ‘boob tube’

Stop the presses! Or the electrons, or whatever. Researchers have discovered that watching a lot of TV as a toddler shortens the attention span of children.

The more television infants and toddlers watch, the more likely they are to have trouble paying attention and concentrating during their early school years, a study reports Monday.

. . . The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children younger than 2 and no more than two hours of high-quality programming for older kids. Many children watch much more TV.

Young TV addicts may not have Attention Deficit Disorder, but they’re more likely to have problems with concentration, impulsiveness and restlessness. The more they watched, the more problems their mothers reported. When researchers accounted for other factors, “the TV-attention link remained.”

It’s harder to teach TV addicts.

Meanwhile, even veteran teachers with superb child-managing skills are reporting “more kids that are off-the-wall. … It started about 10 years ago,” says Susan Ratterree, a 25-year school psychologist supervisor in suburban New Orleans. Awareness of ADHD is increasing teacher reports of attention problems, “but the kids are changing, too,” she says.

Educators may need to change their methods to keep the attention of stimulation-saturated children, says Los Angeles media psychologist Stuart Fischoff. “Rather than seeing these kids as pathological, maybe we should see them as adaptive, pointing the way to how our society is evolving. Brains may be changing, and we don’t know if it’s going to be bad or not.”

We don’t? I think we do.

I was three or four when my parents got our first TV. (This was in the ’50s.) My sister and I watched The Mickey Mouse Club as our only show. No Howdy Doody. No Captain Kangaroo. My daughter started watching TV when she was three, I think. It was Sesame Street only, and then Mister Rogers. But not every day. She had to ask permission to watch anything. By the time, she was too old for Mister Rogers, she could read. I didn’t watch TV while she was awake either, except for the news. For years, she thought all adult programs were “the news.” Of course, she’s now addicted to The O.C. and Friends.

About Joanne


  1. I think people have a lot of trouble differentiating causation and correlation.

    USA Today is hardly a great resource for the scientific method. “Christakis used a government database to see how much TV 1- to 3-year-old cchildren watched, as reported by their mothers, and then related that to their scores on a behavior checklist showing attention problems at age 7.”


    Not Causation.

  2. I’d be really interested to find out how other countries stack up in terms of television viewing time of the very young and attention problems.

    One of the claims made by the anti-ritalin folks (a side I am slightly leaning toward) is that ADHD is far more diagnosed in the U.S. than elsewhere. The implication, the anti-ritalin folks (or some of them, at least) being, ADHD is overdiagnosed here, or there’s something inherent in the modern American style of schooling that allows for such behavior to develop.

    If, however, you can blame tv, that’s another matter.

    (then again, I also lean towards the “Blame T.V.” camp, as well).

    I watched very little television as a child; I found it cut too much into my reading time.

  3. Perhaps it’s not the schools that “allows for such behavior to develop” but the parents?

    Consider the parallels with the cited TV “study” which fails to mention that increased TV viewing by young kids is highly correlated to lower socioeconomic status, teenage parenting and single parenting.

    And out of curiosity, why do you want to “blame TV”?

  4. e,
    Not sure what your point was on the correlation vs. causation statements. Obviously most research only shows correlation, no matter how well designed the research may be all research is flawed. Perhaps you meant to point out that there are multiple rival hypotheses, such as that there might be a personality trait that makes people who have a short attention span more likely to watch TV.

    I am not trying to be rude or anything, I just wanted to point out that the vast majority of Joanne’s readers are highly intelligent and understand basic statistical concepts. If you want to criticize the research it helps if you point out specifics.


  5. Shawn Lee says:

    I would have read the entire article, post, and resulting comments, but then I was raised watching TV.

  6. I would like to blame t.v. for all sorts of things, but I don’t think this study, as reported, does much to prove t.v. viewing in early childhood causes problems later on. Couldn’t it be just as likely that the ten percent of seven-year olds with attention problems were once annoying toddlers? Some toddlers may be able to turn on the t.v.s in their rooms without help, but for most toddlers, adults decide whether or not they will watch t.v. Television is a tremendous pacifier; a mother dealing with a challenging toddler will be more likely, in my opinion, to use t.v. than a mom whose kid can busy himself with toys.

  7. It’s probably even simpler than Julia suggested. TV time is just an inverse measure of how much time parents spend with the kids.

  8. I dunno — I was allowed to watch very little tv as a child, not so much due to content or however it might affect my ability to learn as because all my favorite shows were on after my school-night bedtime. And I went through several periods where I refused to watch tv at all — when I was little during the Vietnam War my parents would watch the news and I wanted nothing to do with all those body counts and other boring battle stuff, and in the seventies when tv really sucked, and now… I mostly read. But I have always had trouble concentrating on anything but books. Television, because it demands all your concentration, was impossible for me to stand for more than a few minutes: I had to have a book nearby even when I was watching tv, to refresh my brain.

  9. Tammy in Texas says:

    Two other things that need to be taken into consideration when hearing the results of the study:

    1.) It relied on parents’ confession about how much TV their child watched. How accurate were the parents? (How many deliberately lowballed their answer? How many simply guessimated their answer? etc.)

    2.) The study also relied on the parents’ evaluation of their child’s behavior. How realistic are the parents’ expectations where child behavior is concerned? I’ve run across a few parents whose expectations aren’t very realistic to begin with.

  10. I’m so ADD I nearly flicker and I grew up without TV in the 60s. My old man, a classic case, smoked a couple of packs of Luckies a day and never watched. Those of you who think meds are wrong–live MY LIFE for a day and you’d be begging for Adderall.

  11. D. Pitoniak says:

    Tell me one GOOD thing that tv can give my child that he can’t get elsewhere, and I will turn mine back on. We have been without tv for about a year. Our son watches videos and DVDs we get from the library, and on rare occasion Blockbuster. Our lives are better for it.

    There is a direct correlation between my son’s behavior and the tv being turned on. I don’t know if that applies to everyone or not. My son would sit in front of the tv while the house burned down around him if it were on. When it’s not on he plays games, goes outside, and gets involved in sports. And oh yeah, he might read a book.

    Sure there are good shows on tv occasionally, and who can fault the History or Discovery channels. But the little bit of good tv is by far overwhelmed by the negative aspects.

  12. Oh good, we’re back to the cycle of handwringing over television. I grew up in the 70s, the first decade in which television–and particularly television developed for children–was pervasive. And there was a time in the 80s when parents and teachers were terribly upset over our viewing habits and that we were unsupervised, etc. My generation escaped unscathed as will–despite the pharmaceutical companies’ best efforts–the current one. “Sesame Street” all around!

  13. Tim from Texas says:

    I don,t think TV by itself could cause ADD. TV, however, except for very good programs directed to the 2-7 year olds, is mind numbing. Why anyone
    watches TV for more than say 4hrs a week is very puzzling to me. It is completely a commercial ad business with no interest to the well being fo anything other than its self promotion and profit margin. Watching TV is just seeing and listening to things one already knows, therefore ,it is mind numbing.

    Children hate TV. They would much rather do other things such as being with the family playing, talking,walking-that is, interesting things, you name it, anything but watching TV.
    But, eventually they give up and just sit there and watch and allow themselves to be assaulted and numbed.As to ADD, if my memory serves mecorrectly it used to be called hyper-activity,which was supposedly caused by suger,junk food etc. And of course, we are great at allowing ourselves to be pursuaded that it is something other than what we are doing to our children.

    Calling it ADD, allows parents and our society to get off the hook. It is caused almost exclusively by sleep deprivation. There is research which shows this to be the case. This research won’t be found on TV ,however, because if
    parents and society are informed, the snake oil gathers dust on the shelves.

    When children are allowed to stay up late adrenelin kicks in and creates a drugged state. This allows them to stay up even later and when this continues day after day the children stay in this drugged state. So, every morning they get up tired and exausted, even when they are allowed to sleep in a little. This creates a cycle of tiredness,irratibilty,hyper-activity,and agression which has now been labeled ADD.

    We assault our chidren. We allow them to consume caffeine thru colas and other means, allow them to stay up way past a reasonable bedtime,allow them to stuff themselves,and when they get irritable we give them more of the same while all
    along ignoring them in the real sense by allowing
    them, hell, even encouraging them to plop down on the sofa and numb the mind and body even more by watching TV. Of course, we do this to ourselves also. What do we expect from all of that–happy,alert,curius,inquisitive beings with an adequate attention span?

  14. Walter Wallis says:

    In the 50’s, some TVs were sold on a meter plan, where you paid a quarter for every 15 minutes of watching, and a collector came around to empty the meter box.

    A friend of mine bought a TV and had a meter box installed on it. He increased his kid’s allowance a couple of dollars a week, and let them watch anything they were willing to pay to watch.

  15. slimedog says:

    So folks plop their kids down in front of the TV with a bag of chips for about a decade, and then some egghead comes along and shows correlations to short attention span and obesity. MY, WHAT A SURPRISE. And by e’s thinking, Prof Egghead will need to do EXPERIMENTS before anyone is convinced of causation. Only an intellectual would need a large sample of kicks the butt to infer that they caused pain.

  16. Involved parenting with or without TV is good; uninvolved parenting with or without TV is bad.

  17. Tim from Texas says:

    How can a parent be involved with the children when the TV is on. The parent can’t and isn’t-other than to try to explain the idiotic ideas and images spewing at the chidren. That is the reason chidren hate it. I think they wonder why TV is so important and they definitely feel instinctively that something is wrong. But alas,since the parent thinks it’s more important to have the TV blaring instead of one on one attention from the parent, they give up.

    Sure, I guess one can say there are some good programs on PBS as Sesame Street and the like,but what they get from them would be betterlearned thru playing, talking etc.at your knee or from a well written book, or from good old story telling which children just love.

  18. jeff wright says:

    I applaud Tim from Texas’s comments as being some of the most cogent observations I’ve seen on this site. My experiences support his thesis completely. TV is boring and cannot compare with the real world.

    I have a 32-year-old daughter, who graduated from college with honors in two science majors. She is now doing very well at one of the preeminent bio-tech firms. I attribute much of her success to the fact that she never got the TV habit. We spent her third through sixth years in Germany, where I was an U.S. Army officer assigned to two different cities without American TV. Although I speak German, even I was turned off by German TV. Boring, to say the least. A four-year-old had no interest whatsoever. So we spent tons of time together, as a family, exploring Europe and just hanging out.

    I can’t say for sure how my kid would have developed intellectually had we been in the U.S. during those critical formative years. She almost certainly would not have turned into a TV junky because neither my wife nor I—children of the fifties—ever got the habit. But I’m sure happy with the way it worked out.

    None of us watches more than ten hours of TV per week. Me, primarily sports and news, my wife and daughter, old movies and news. My viewing actually increases during the summer because I often have a ball game on. But what’s nice about sports viewing is you can have your book, too. We don’t watch a single entertainment program; I sometimes feel lacking somehow when I have to admit to others that I don’t know who the latest TV star is.

    Anybody ever read 1984 or see the movie?

  19. There does seem to be some kind of magnetic pull from a video screen. A couple of months ago, I was talking to a flight instructor who had been teaching in the new Cessnas (with large GPS screens installed). He said that students had a tendency to keep glancing at the screen even during a landing, in visual conditions, when there is absolutely no reason to do so and plenty of reason not to.