Does exposure to fast-paced television reduce cognitive function in young children?

Travis’ Note:  Today’s guest post comes from our friend and colleague Valerie Carson, and was originally published on the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network. More details on Valerie and her work can be found at the bottom of this post.

Television viewing has become a common activity for many preschool-aged children. As a result, there is increasing interest on the potential short- and long-term health implications associated with this early television exposure. Emerging research suggests that early television viewing may have adverse long-term effects on attention; however, little is known about the short-term effects. A paper recently published in Pediatrics, by Dr. Lillard and Ms. Peterson from the University of Virginia, provides some insight into this relationship.  The main purpose of the study was to examine the influence of fast-paced television shows on short-term executive function. According to the authors, executive function is a group of skills that is important for positive social and cognitive functioning such as attention, working memory, problem solving, self-regulation, and delay of gratification. It is thought that during fast-paced television, executive resources are depleted because of the effort needed by children to encode the information that is rapidly being presented to them.

What did they do?

The authors randomly assigned 60 preschool-aged children (4 years old) to a fast-paced television, educational television, or drawing group. The fast-paced television show (SpongeBob SquarePants)  had scene changes on average every 11 seconds compared to every 34 seconds for the educational television show (Caillou). Within a small room in the university laboratory, the children watched the television show or participated in the drawing activity for 9 minutes and then immediately completed 4 well known executive function tasks (Tower of Hanoi, backward digit span, and head toes knees shoulders, delay of gratification). While children were being tested, parents completed a survey regarding their children’s current television viewing habits and attention problems.

What did they find?

Since the tower of Hanoi, backward digit span, and head toes knees shoulders scores were closely related (α = 0.69), they were combined to form a composite executive function score and the delay of gratification score was examined separately. For both outcomes, children in the fast-paced television group had significantly worse scores compared to the children in the two other groups. For example, based on a figure presented by the authors, children in the fast-paced television group had an average z-score of approximately -0.45 for the head toes knees shoulders task compared to approximately 0.18 and 0.30 of the educational television and drawing groups, respectively. These finding were consistent after adjusting for age, television viewing habits, and attention problems. However, there were no significant differences in the executive function scores between the educational television and drawing groups.

What’s the take-home message?

Although limited, the majority of research to date has looked at long-term effects of television viewing on children’s attention and related skills. This study suggests that there may also be short-term effects. Specifically, young children’s social and cognitive functioning (i.e., the ability to behave with self-control and to learn) may be hindered immediately after watching popular fast-paced television cartoons. This is an important message to convey to parents and caregivers of young children. At the same time, further research should explore what features of fast-paced television shows hinder executive function, how long the effects last after a television show, and what implications longer segments of these shows have on executive function.

Valerie Carson

About the author: Valerie Carson is in the final year of her PhD in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. Her current research focuses on sedentary behaviour and health in young people.

ResearchBlogging.orgLillard, A., & Peterson, J. (2011). The Immediate Impact of Different Types of Television on Young Children’s Executive Function PEDIATRICS, 128 (4), 644-649 DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-1919

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10 Responses to Does exposure to fast-paced television reduce cognitive function in young children?

  1. Am I being unreasonable in seeing this as problematic? Isn’t what’s going on here simply that if you get kids hyped up, it takes them a while to calm down, and they won’t do well on tasks that require concentration while they’re still hyped up?

    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Just to clarify – is it the lack of attention to the problem that’s problematic, or that we’re focusing on TV rather than activities that amp kids up more generally?

  2. It’s that the experiment doesn’t compare fast-paced TV with other things that might amp up the kids and thus might also reduce their performance on those tests. So it seems a stretch to claim that fast paced TV “reduces cognitive function”, when the obvious explanation hasn’t been accounted for.

    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      But wouldn’t that simply be a potential mechanism to explain why this effect was observed? It wouldn’t mean that TV had no effect, just that the effect is mediated by something. For example, if I go on a structured training plan, my marathon time will likely be improved. It would be improved because the training had resulted in physical alterations (increased blood volume, mitochondrial density, etc), but it would still be fair to conclude that the training caused the improved performance. Is this situation any different?

  3. Well, that gets to part II of my complaint. The idea that the tests used measure “cognitive impairment” when all that’s happening is that the kids are hyped up is, well, silly.

    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      Regardless of what we want to call it, couldn’t being “hyped up” still be good and/or bad, depending on the context, and therefore worthy of knowing? I guess I’m just not clear as to why it matters whether we call it “cognitive impairment” or being “hyped up”, or whether it is an impact the is unique to TV or is shared by other activities. It still seems like useful info to me.

  4. Uh, what you call it is really important. There may or may not be anything wrong with being hyped up, but to assign a pejorative term to a cause of a state that’s very common in kids is way beyond reasonable. “Tickle fights with siblings reduces cognitive function” “Playing cops and robbers reduces cognitive function” would be ridiculous. Why isn’t this title exactly as ridiculous? “Fast paced TV get kids just as excited as ” might be mildly interesting, and perhaps of use to parents. But “TV breaks your kids” is problematic, unless they can actually show that, which they haven’t.

    • Travis Saunders, MSc, CEP says:

      I’m not a cognitive researcher so I can’t speak to these tests specifically, but if we have validated tests of cognitive function, and kids do worse on these tests after watching TV (or a certain type of TV), then I think it’s legitimate to say that TV might very well result in an acute reduction in cognitive function. I think it’s reasonable to ask whether other activities might have a similar impact on performance on these tests, but I don’t see why this finding is illegitimate without measuring other activities. And I don’t see why it would be ridiculous to conclude that those other activities reduce cognitive function, if they had the same effect on these tests.

      I agree that “TV breaks your kids” would be more problematic, but that seems to be a very different situation than the one we have here. I don’t like it when people over-hype research either, but this study (and Val’s write-up) don’t really stray from the actual results.

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  6. Studies by Dr. Dimitri Christakis and other child development specialists have already concluded that watching fast-pace television shows impair the child’s cognitive development. According to the study, watching just nine minutes of the television program SpongeBob SquarePants can cause short-term attention and learning problems in 4-year-olds.