A new study by Seattle researchers suggests that television viewing by children younger than 3 can damage their reading comprehension and...

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A new study by Seattle researchers suggests that television viewing by children younger than 3 can damage their reading comprehension and short-term memory.

But the same study also says that for 3- to 5-year-olds, watching TV may actually improve some cognitive abilities.

Researchers say the findings, published today in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, provide a much-needed analysis of the effects of television viewing among young children, and illustrate how important it is for parents to monitor what their children watch.

“Television is not inherently good or bad — it’s how you use it,” said Frederick Zimmerman, co-author of the study and an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

The researchers analyzed standardized tests and television viewing habits of more than 1,700 children monitored as part of a long-term national study.

Based on tests taken by children ages 6 to 7, the study found that those who averaged more than two hours of TV a day when they were younger than 3 scored lower in reading and short-term memory.

TV guidelines for parents

Schedule TV times and choices in advance.

Limit children’s total screen time, including time watching TV and videotapes, playing video and computer games, and surfing the Internet.

Help children choose shows, videos and video games that are appropriate for their ages and interests.

Check content ratings and parental advisories for all programs and video games.

Keep TV sets, VCRs, video games and computers out of children’s bedrooms and put them where you can be involved and monitor their use.

Talk back: Watch TV with your kids and help them analyze, question and challenge the meaning of programs.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

What do you think?

Do parents try to limit how much TV tots watch? Or is preventing TV time as impossible as getting kids to eat broccoli? Share your thoughts by sending an email to talktous@seattletimes.com. Please include your full name and daytime contact number.

But the children who averaged more than three hours of television per day at ages 3 to 5 scored higher for reading recognition in tests taken at ages 6 to 7.

The study took into account other factors that may contribute to a child’s cognitive development, such as the mother’s education level and IQ.

“Our study looked at the overall net effect of television to see if the ill effects outweigh the positive effects,” Zimmerman said. “We found that to be the case, especially for children under 3.”

He is planning further studies to try to determine how TV watching affects cognitive development. Is it the content itself, or the fact that TV pulls children away from other activities that contribute to cognitive development?

Previous studies have found that educational programs such as “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” help kids learn.

Those programs are designed with education in mind and test to make sure they fulfill that mission, Zimmerman said. They also promote interactivity, such as singing and sounding out words, that parents can participate in.

“When parents talk with their child and interact, that makes a big difference all through childhood,” he said.

But other children’s shows, such as “Teletubbies” or the movie “The Lion King,” are designed to entertain, not educate, Zimmerman said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time — including television, video games and computers — for children younger than 2. It suggests no more than one to two hours of high-quality, age-appropriate viewing for older children each day.

Despite these guidelines, studies suggest that children are watching television more than any activity other than sleeping, said Donald Shifrin, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on communications. Some people say the academy guidelines are based in belief, not research, Shifrin said.

Zimmerman’s study supports the academy’s guidelines, he said.

“We have been yearning for this kind of study,” Shifrin said. “It’s the first study of this kind to look at data on 2-year-olds and cognitive development.”

Shifrin, who also has been a private practice pediatrician for 27 years, emphasizes that television isn’t necessarily bad. Beyond learning letters and numbers, age-appropriate television can help children learn about social interaction and behavior.

He hopes this new study will encourage parents to be more involved in choosing what their children watch.

“The electronic world is moving fast, and all of this is not lost on our children’s minds,” Shifrin said. “All television teaches — the question is what we want our children to learn.”

Carina Stanton: 206-464-8349 or cstanton@seattletimes.com