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Screen Media and Attention/Hyperactivity Problems in Children and Adolescents

By — Video Game Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

What's wrong?

Over the past few decades, children and adults have been spending increasing amounts of time in front of movie, television, and computer screens.  At the same time, increasing numbers of young people are being diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  Psychologists and pediatricians have recently discovered evidence that time spent viewing screen media (television, movies, and video games) increases the risk of subsequent attention and hyperactivity problems in children and adolescents.  There is research indicating that screen media exposure is particularly influential in the first few years of life; however, there is also some evidence that exposure later in childhood and early adolescence can also increase attention problems.

Attention-grabbing sensory and emotional cues

Many parents of children with attention problems have noticed that the one thing their children can focus on for hours is TV or video games.  Although screen media may offer parents some short-term relief, and may even prompt some parents to think that maybe this focused time in front of screens may be beneficial for their children, it may actually lead to greater problems.  Television shows, movies, and video games make use of powerful sensory and emotional cues to grab and hold attention.  Specifically, screen media make great use of tricks to trigger an "orienting response," such as changes in lighting, camera angles, and sound effects.  Furthermore, many media include violent and sexual content that draw attention and can produce strong emotional reactions.  If children spend a lot of time with screen media, they may learn to depend on these sensory and emotional cues to maintain attention, and this may interfere with a child's ability to concentrate on activities that lack such cues, such as reading a book.  In short, if a child spends years having attention supported by these technical tricks, how well will they be able focus when they get to school and are required to attend to a teacher who does not have a million dollar per classroom episode budget for special effects?

The development of attention problems is troubling in itself, but the negative effects also appear to carry over into other areas of a child's or adolescent's life.  The increased attention and hyperactivity problems associated with screen media exposure are associated with the following:

  • Increased aggression
  • Worse grades in school
  • Lower probability of graduating from college
  • More aggressive behavior and lower educational achievement may be likely to cause difficulties in adulthood.

What can you do about it?

The American Academy of Pediatrics has made a number of recommendations that are relevant to reducing attention and hyperactivity problems

  • It is recommended that children younger than 2-years-old do not watch any screen media.  This is an important period for brain development.  Time spent watching television takes away from time that could be spent on other activities that contribute to healthy brain development, such as talking, playing, singing, or reading.
  • Parents should limit children over age 2 to no more than 1 or 2 hours of total screen media per day(add up all the time spent watching TV, DVDs, and movies as well as the time spent playing video games and being online).
  • At no age should children have TV sets or video game systems in their bedrooms.
  • When children do watch television, the programs should be educational and nonviolent. There is some evidence that educational television does not lead to subsequent attention/hyperactivity problems.

For more information about the effects media have on children, visit www.DrDouglas.org

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