MONDAY, Oct. 1 (HealthDay News) -- If your toddler is watching a lot of TV, turn it off now and save yourself a lot of trouble later.
That's the conclusion of a new study that suggests that the negative effects of lots of early TV viewing on children can be overcome by limiting viewing before the age of 6.
The study doesn't confirm that television is actually bad for young kids. Nor does it show exactly how much of a cutback would help children exposed to lots of TV early in life. Still, lead author Kamila Mistry, a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it makes a strong case for a "significant" difference in behavioral problems in kids depending on their viewing.
"It's never too late," Mistry said. "That's an important message for parents as well as pediatricians, encouraging parents to turn off the TV and think about alternative activities for kids."
Television, of course, has long been blamed for a variety of ills among children, from lethargy and obesity to shortened attention spans. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages kids under 2 from watching any TV at all, and it says older kids shouldn't watch more than two hours a day.
Why take another look at TV and children? According to Mistry, the new study is unusual, because it followed kids over time -- from 2.5 years to 5.5 years -- and measured the effects of changing levels of TV watching.
The researchers looked at the results of surveys of 2,702 families who enrolled in a national study between 1996 and 1998. The kids were followed from birth to age 5.5.
Twenty percent of parents said their kids watched at least two hours of TV a day at both 2.5 and 5.5 years. Four in 10 children had TVs in their bedrooms at age 5.5.
Even when the researchers adjusted the study results to account for factors such as income and "parental involvement," they found that kids who watched two or more hours of TV daily at both ages were more likely to suffer from sleep, attention and aggressive behavior problems, and "externalizing of problem behaviors." Also, those who watched more TV over time had greater problems dealing with others.
But those children who reduced TV watching between the two ages didn't have a greater likelihood of either social or behavioral problems.
The researchers also found that kids with TVs in their bedrooms were more likely to have sleeping problems.
The findings are published in the October issue of Pediatrics.
The structure of the study didn't allow the researchers to say how much more likely kids were to have problems depending on their viewing habits, Mistry said. She added that it's not a cause-and-effect study. It's possible that behavioral and social problems may contribute to TV viewing, not the other way around, she said.
The study also didn't look at whether the children were watching educational programming, like "Sesame Street," or other programs, such as those geared toward adults.
"I hesitate to say TV is horrible," Mistry said, "but excessive amounts of any activity is probably not good."
Madeline A. Dalton, director of the Hood Center for Families and Children at Dartmouth Medical School, said she's not sure that reducing heavy early exposure to TV will eliminate the risk of problems. She thinks more research is needed to determine that and to figure out if it's possible that "parents may be more likely to sit their children in front of the TV if they have behavioral problems."
However, "time spent watching TV is likely to reduce the amount of time children spend interacting with adults and other children," Dalton said. "Therefore, it is not surprising that this may have an impact on ability to interact socially."
She added: "We are raising our children in a media-saturated world. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but our knowledge of how media affects children -- both in terms of behavior and health -- has clearly lagged behind its use."
Learn more about children and TV from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
SOURCES: Kamila Mistry, M.P.H., doctoral candidate, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore; Madeline Dalton, Ph.D., director, Hood Center for Families and Children, Dartmouth Medical School, Lebanon, N.H.; October 2007, Pediatrics