Early Television Viewing Is Associated With Protesting Turning Off the Television at Age 6

Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH; Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD

In This Article


American children watch an astonishing amount of television (TV). Recent national data suggest that children under the age of 6 years watch on average of over 1 hour/day and that adolescents watch 3.5 hours/day.[1,2] Cross-sectional evidence has suggested that TV viewing can have potentially untoward effects at any age,[3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11] and experimental designs conducted in older children have demonstrated that TV reduction can cause reductions in obesity and aggression.[6,7,8] In light of these and other findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents not allow children under the age of 2 to watch TV and that they limit viewing time to less than 2 hours/day afterward.[12] In fact, Healthy People 2010 has for the first time established reducing TV viewing as a fitness objective.[13]

However, reducing or limiting TV viewing in older children may meet resistance, a barrier that may prove difficult or indeed insurmountable for many parents. Whether TV viewing is addictive in the strictest sense remains controversial, although there is evidence that people become dependent on it as a means of alleviating stress.[14,15] Children as young as 4 learn to use TV to alleviate aversive states, such as feeling sad.[16] We also know from previous correlational studies that the more TV that children watch before age 2, the more that they watch at later ages.[2,17,18] These studies are limited, however, in that they are few in number, have small sample sizes, or are not nationally representative, and do not include controls for important potential confounders in the relationship between early viewing and subsequent TV habits.

The persistence of early viewing into later childhood is important for 2 reasons: First, it raises the question of whether early exposure may predispose children to later interest in watching in some formative way given early developmental trajectories. Second, it has implications for prevention because parents who wish to limit TV viewing during school age may be well served by doing so very early in life.

Rules limiting the amount of TV viewing are routinely recommended for parents.[19] Enforcing such rules will, per force, entail that parents be prepared to turn the set off. From the parent's perspective, an important outcome is the difficulty and resistance that the parents face in enforcing restrictions on TV viewing at grade school age and beyond. Although this difficulty may not formally be a sign of undue dependence on TV, it does represent an important factor in how well parents can restrict their children's TV viewing, and by extension how much TV their children watch.

We hypothesized that very early exposure to TV would lead to a greater resistance to turning off the TV later in life. This study tested that hypothesis with observational data from a nationally representative longitudinal data set.


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