Q: I’m wondering if you would consider the results of research that has examined relationships between media and inattention to be conclusive. It seems that even on this website, some researchers find a connection and some don’t. Do the results lean in one direction more than the other? I have a 4-year-old son who is following in his father’s media-obsessed footsteps, and my very serious concerns are going unheard.
–Anxious about Attention, Amherst, MA
A: Dear Anxious,
You’re right that individual studies on this topic have mixed results. But, as you imply, parents (and pediatricians) have to make decisions for their kids well before there’s definitive proof of what is healthful. My approach as a parent and recommendations as a pediatrician are based on what seems to be the safest route. In this case, if there is a chance that watching lots of TV may increase the risk of attention problems, that risk outweighs the benefits.
To be more specific, some studies do show that when kids are exposed to screen media in their early years, they may struggle with tasks that require attention when they are even a bit older and may display more behaviors associated with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. And perhaps more importantly, the research overall shows that it’s important to limit screentime and to use it in focused ways to help support children’s ability to pay attention.
That’s part of why it’s important to set media limits for your son. He needs lots of time to do other things—like play outside, eat dinner with you, read books, and explore his physical world. Including screen media in the list of activities can certainly be beneficial, when the content is designed for kids of his age, when it’s used in small quantities that match his attention span, and whem it doesn’t replace other important activities of daily life.
One way to approach your concerns about your son with his father wo uld be to together observe how your child acts before, during, and after media use. What specifically do you see that worries you—even if it’s not directly related to attention? Is it that he asks constantly for more TV time? Is it that he can’t settle down after watching a show? Does he seem to behave more aggressively after than before? As the two of you observe and talk about this, think about how you usually make decisions for your son’s health, and apply those same principles to the question of media use.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,