Like most parents, Michael Paranzino of Bethesda, Md., knows how tempting it can be to park one's child in front of the TV to get a break. "It's the world's easiest baby sitter," says the stay-at-home dad. But Mr. Paranzino resisted letting his 3-year-old son watch even "Sesame Street" until about six months ago.
"There's so much societal pressure to let children watch TV," he says. "I took a lot of ribbing for my decision. But we all know in our hearts that something that turns kids into zombies isn't good."
Paranzino did the right thing, according to a new study that links early TV-watching to hyperactivity. Published this month in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the study finds that for every hour a day preschoolers watch TV, their risk of developing attention-deficit problems later in life increases by about 10 percent.
It suggests that the pace of today's programs, including quick action, rapid scene changes, and high noise levels, might overstimulate and permanently "rewire" the developing brain.
Even the most educational shows could be harmful, researchers found, although content was not the focus. As a result, the AAP recommends that parents ban TV for children under 2 and limit viewing to one to two hours per day for older children.
This news comes as a wake-up call for parents who might not be as careful as Paranzino. The study is the first of its kind, as previous studies have looked only at the relationship between children's TV viewing and obesity or aggression.
Many infants and toddlers consume a daily diet of PBS, Disney Channel, or Nickelodeon, waking to Big Bird and dozing off with SpongeBob. The Kaiser Foundation recently found that 25 percent of children under 2 have TVs in their bedrooms and more than 60 percent of them use some kind of screen - computer, DVD, or TV - on a typical day.
Not every parent is ready to shut off the TV for good, but some might tweak their routines. "Parents have been surprised and maybe a little chagrined by these findings," says Frederick Zimmerman, assistant professor at the University of Washington's school of public health and one of the study's lead researchers.
Peggy Alvarado, a New Jersey mother, plans to cut back on the three to four hours a day she allows her 2-year-old daughter to watch TV, perhaps by setting her up with an arts-and-crafts project in her home office.
"It's been difficult ever since the arrival of her baby sister, who's now 4 months old," says Alvarado, a certified parent coach. "But this study has given me more motivation."
Like many parents, she always thought TV could teach her daughter valuable lessons - colors, numbers, shapes, sounds, and more - that could give her a head start for kindergarten.
TV certainly helped her when she was young, Alvarado says. When she was a toddler in the 1960s, Alvarado, the first-born child of immigrants, learned to speak English from watching TV.
Alvarado explains that new technology such as TiVo has given her more control. She can now record her child's favorite shows ahead of time and fast-forward through commercials. "It has revolutionized the way we watch TV," she says, "and will make a huge impact on the effect of TV on children."
Children's TV producers aren't rushing to slow down the pace of shows, nor is anyone ready to predict a new crop of gentle programs à la "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." But they aren't ignoring the AAP study either. A response to the study from PBS KIDS says that the broadcasting giant "encourages caregivers to limit and supervise their children's TV-viewing habits as well as interact with them during and after approved programs."
Limiting, supervising, and interacting are all important, say child development experts. But kids under 3 have more important things to do than watch television, they emphasize.
"There are so many other things toddlers should be doing," says Patricia Vardin, chair of early childhood education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. "They need a wide range of experiences to explore the world and develop their skills."
Dr. Vardin, a mother herself, is encouraged by the Pediatrics report, which she discussed with her graduate students the day it made headlines. "All studies need further research, but this is a good warning to parents and day-care providers that will hopefully make them think twice before sitting a child in front of the TV for five to six hours a day."
Other parents might agree - in theory. Some still say that their busy lives and the perception that kids are learning the ABCs and 1-2-3s will keep the TV on.
"TV watching plays a large role in our society and family lives," says Alvarado.
"It will take more than a study to create long-lasting change."