IOWA STATE (US)—Parents looking to get their kid’s attention—or keep them focused at home and in the classroom—should try to limit their television viewing and video game play.

Elementary school-age and college-age participants who exceed two hours per day of screen time are as much as twice as likely to be above average in attention problems.

“There isn’t an exact number of hours when screen time contributes to attention problems, but the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommendation of no more than two hours a day provides a good reference point,” says Edward Swing, a psychology doctoral candidate at Iowa State University and lead researcher in the study.

“Most children are way above that. In our sample, children’s total average time with television and video games is 4.26 hours per day, which is actually low compared to the national average.”

Details of the study are available online in the journal Pediatrics and will be published in the August print issue.

The researchers assessed 1,323 children in third, fourth, and fifth grades over 13 months, using reports from the parents and children about their video game and television habits, as well as teacher reports of attention problems.

Another group of 210 college students provided self-reports of television habits, video game exposure, and attention problems.

Previous research had identified television to be associated with attention problems in children. The new study also found similar effects from the amount of time with video games.

“It is still not clear why screen media may increase attention problems, but many researchers speculate that it may be due to rapid-pacing, or the natural attention grabbing aspects that television and video games use,” Swing explains.

The pace of television programming has been quickened by “the MTV effect,” says Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology.

“When MTV came on, it started showing music videos that had very quick edits—cuts once every second or two. Consequently, the pacing of other television and films sped up too, with much quicker edits.”

He says that quicker pace may have some brain-changing effects when it comes to attention span. “Brain science demonstrates that the brain becomes what the brain does.

“If we train the brain to require constant stimulation and constant flickering lights, changes in sound and camera angle, or immediate feedback, such as video games can provide, then when the child lands in the classroom where the teacher doesn’t have a million-dollar-per-episode budget, it may be hard to get children to sustain their attention.”

The study showed that the effect was similar in magnitude between video games and TV viewing.

Based on the study’s findings, Swing and Gentile conclude that TV and video game viewing may be one contributing factor for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

“ADHD is a medical condition, but it’s a brain condition,” Gentile says. “We know that the brain adapts and changes based on the environmental stimuli to which it is exposed repeatedly.

“Therefore, it is not unreasonable to believe that environmental stimuli can increase the risk for a medical condition like ADHD in the same way that environmental stimuli, like cigarettes, can increase the risk for cancer.”

“Although we did not specifically study the medical condition of ADHD in these studies, we did focus on the kinds of attention problems that are experienced by students with ADHD,” adds Swing.

“We were surprised, for example, that attention problems in the classroom would increase in just one year for those children with the highest screen time.”

Swing points out that the associations between attention problems and TV and video game exposure are significant, but small.

“It is important to note that television or video game time cannot solely explain the development of attention problems,” he says. “Clearly other factors are involved.”

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