A new study suggests that children who spend long hours in front of screens, either watching TV or playing video games, may be harming their ability to focus in the classroom.
The study, conducted by the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, followed over 1,300 children in grades 3 to 5 for over a year. Parents helped log the total amount of TV and gaming time.
Researchers found that kids who exceeded the two hours per day of total screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics were 1½ to two times more likely to have attention problems when it came to schoolwork.
The children averaged 4.26 hours a day of total time watching television and video games – a figure, the researchers say, that’s relatively low compared to the U.S. national average. They then asked the kids’ teachers to answer questions about how the children behaved in school – whether they had difficulty staying on task, for instance, or whether they interrupted others. The teachers also rated the kids on aggressive behavior and social skills.
The researchers found that attention problems in the classroom grew worse in proportion to total screen time. Even after accounting for attention problems the children may have had before they entered the study, those who watched a lot of TV or played a lot of video games had more problems concentrating on schoolwork.
Another arm of the study asked 210 college students to provide reports of television habits, video game exposure and attention problems. They found that the longer those young adults spent in front of the TV as kids, the more likely they were to have attention problems, suggesting that early exposure to too much screen time may have lasting consequences.
Those college students who exceeded two hours of daily screen time doubled their risk of having above-average attention problems.
The researchers say it didn’t matter how kids spent their screen time – whether it was watching TV or playing video games: “The associations of screen media and attention problems were similar across media type (television or video games),” they wrote in a report published this week in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The researchers say they don’t know why heavy screen time is linked to attention problems, but they note previous researchers have hypothesized that because most TV shows and video games are exciting and involve rapid changes in focus, kids then have difficulty paying attention to less exciting tasks, such as schoolwork.
It’s also possible that too much screen means kids don’t get enough sleep or exercise, which can also adversely impact their ability to concentrate.
The researchers say that the risk of kids developing concentration problems could be reduced if caregivers followed the AAP recommendations to limit children’s exposure to television and video games to no more than two hours per day.
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