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Don't Blame TV for ADHD Symptoms

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MONDAY, March 6 (HealthDay News) -- Does watching the flickering lights and frenetically changing pace of some children's TV programs affect a child's brain enough to cause symptoms of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder?

Not likely, new research suggests.

While previous studies have linked early television exposure to attention problems, a new study in the March issue of Pediatrics failed to find a connection between ADHD and TV viewing habits.

"TV is designed to capture our attention and move us quickly from one subject to the next. The question is, does the young brain become different because of this?" asked study co-author Tara Stevens, an assistant professor in the department of educational psychology and leadership at Texas Tech University.

Stevens said that from this study, it appeared that was not the case. And, as far as ADHD symptoms were concerned, "It was clear that the relationship with TV viewing was close to zero."

She was quick to point out that she and co-author Miriam Mulsow weren't advocating TV viewing in children, however. But she added, "I think these findings take a little bit of the pressure off parents. It's very likely that you did not do something wrong to make your child develop ADHD."

The researchers randomly selected two samples of 2,500 children each from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten. That study includes 22,000 youngsters who started kindergarten during the 1998-1999 school year. Information is collected from the children, parents and teachers. For the new analysis, only information from parents and teachers was included.

The researchers looked at the children's behavior during their first year of kindergarten and then again near the end of first grade. They included information on television exposure, any limits placed on TV viewing, parental involvement, socioeconomic status and symptoms of ADHD.

They found no association between television exposure and symptoms of ADHD. They also found that parental involvement -- such as the amount of time parents spent in children's activities that didn't involve TV -- didn't have a link to ADHD symptoms.

Stevens said it's important to note that the children who showed ADHD symptoms hadn't been diagnosed with ADHD. Also, she said, at least one previous study that found an association between TV and ADHD included much younger children, so it's possible that results may be different for a child under 3 who watches lots of TV. That's because the brain is much more "plastic" or changeable the younger a child is, she said. So, TV viewing at 2 or 3 years of age may have more of an effect than TV viewing at 5 or 6.

Seeking to explain why previous research found an association between television viewing and ADHD and the new study did not, Stevens said parents of hyperactive children may use TV as a babysitter more than other parents, simply because they need a break or need to capture their child's attention while they make dinner or take a shower.

Dr. Jess Shatkin, director of education and training at the New York University Child Study Center, said he wasn't prepared to fully accept the new findings. "This is a thoughtful and interesting study, but there's not enough data to support the idea that we shouldn't be cautious about kids' exposure to all media. This doesn't change anything I would tell parents."

The bottom line for parents, he said, is "all things in moderation."

Some educational TV may be good for some children, Shatkin said, but "what's good for one isn't necessarily good for another." And, as far as cartoons are concerned, he said, "Children learn from observation. If they see it on TV, they often try it."

More information

To learn more about attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, visit the National Institute of Mental Health.

SOURCES: Tara Stevens, Ed.D., assistant professor, department of educational psychology and leadership, Texas Tech University, Lubbock; Jess Shatkin, M.D., M.P.H., director, education and training, and child and adolescent psychiatrist, New York University Child Study Center, New York City; March 2006 Pediatrics
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