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


We found that early exposure to TV was associated with increased probability of resisting turning off the TV at age 6. This finding was present even while controlling for a number of potential confounding factors, including the number of hours of TV watched at age 6 and behavioral characteristics at both ages 4 and 6 that might predispose children to protest. To our knowledge, this is the first study that has specifically assessed early TV exposure and subsequent resistance to ceasing viewing. Given how little is known about early exposure to this medium, our results may have important implications for future research in this area. In particular, the considerable recent interest in developing means of reducing TV viewing in the grade school years[6,25,26] will benefit from better understanding of the sources of children's resistance to such reduction.

There are several limitations to this study that warrant consideration. First, the measure that we used for protesting having the TV turned off has not been validated. However, it has face validity because parental reports of difficulty are an outcome worth minimizing. A second limitation is that we cannot draw causal inferences from these associations. It could be that behavioral problems before age 4 lead to increased viewing at that young age and to increased protesting later in life. We tried to control for this in our subanalysis by including the BPI externalizing score at age 4, which was the youngest age at which this data were available, and our results remained significant. It is also possible that there are characteristics associated with parents who allow their children to watch excessive TV that account for the relationship between early TV viewing and subsequent protest. We tried to control for this possibility by including a validated, general measure of externalizing problems at age 6. Although we adjusted for a number of potential confounders, including home environment (birth order, cognitive stimulation, and emotional support), our adjustment may have been imperfect and different types of parenting styles (eg, permissive or authoritative) may still confound the association that we found. Third, we have no information on the content of the programs viewed. It may be that certain types of programming are more dependence-inducing at younger ages than others, a question that warrants further study. Moreover, it should be noted that not all TV programs are bad. Indeed, several high-quality options particularly for preschool children are available and have been shown to improve cognitive function and prosocial behaviors.[18,27] Given the limits of our data set, we were unable to asses whether protesting was correlated with content. Finally, TV hours viewed were collected via parental surveys. Although this methodology has been shown to be correlated with actual hours viewed,[28] its subjective nature raises the possibility of measurement error. Generally, random measurement error will reduce the ability to detect an effect in data by biasing toward the null,[29] so our significant finding despite the existence of measurement error suggests that if anything, the true effect may be stronger than what we were able to identify.

Regardless of these limitations, our results have some important implications if replicated in future studies. First, early experiences with TV may inform and mediate subsequent interest in it. Whether this is a result of early habituation or dependence remains unclear but is an important field of inquiry for future study. However, it seems plausible that exposure to TV during critical periods of brain development could induce an increased need for it. Second, our findings suggest that preventive action can be taken with respect to TV interest in school-age children. Limiting young children's exposure to TV as a medium during the first 4 years of life may decrease their interest in it during subsequent time periods.


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