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COL TV takes toll on young minds and bodies

New York Times News Service

Television can be a wonderful learning tool, but sitting passively in front of the tube for hours is taking its toll on the bodies and minds of U.S. children.

The average young child watches about four hours of television a day and each year sees tens of thousands of commercials, often for high-fat, high-sugar or high-salt snacks and foods; thousands of episodes of violence; and countless instances of alcohol use and inappropriate sexual activity. By the time American children finish high school, they have spent nearly twice as many hours in front of the television set as in the classroom.

Nearly 60 percent of children aged 8 to 16 have a TV in their bedroom. Regardless of income level, most homes these days have more than one television. Half of American households have three or more.

Although controversy abounds about the precise ill effects of excessive television watching on children's well-being, there are undeniable facts, some documented through long-term studies.

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No. 1 is the most obvious: A child glued to the tube is sitting still, using the fewest calories of any activity except sleeping. Such children get less exercise than those who watch less television, and they see many more commercials for unhealthful foods and beverages. They also have more opportunity to consume such foods than do children who are out playing. It is no surprise, then, that the percentage of American children who are seriously overweight has risen to more than 15 percent today, from 5 percent in 1964.

Television is also a mentally passive activity. When watched in excess, it deprives children of hours that could be spent fostering creativity, self-reliance, learning and social interaction.

Studies have found that children who watch 10 or more hours of TV a week have lower reading scores and perform less well academically than comparable youngsters who spend less time watching television. Long-term studies suggest several reasons.

One study of 2,500 children conducted at Children's Hospital in Seattle and published in April in the journal Pediatrics found that the more TV watched by toddlers aged 1 to 3, the greater their risk of attention problems at age 7. For each hour watched a day, the risk of developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder increased by nearly 10 percent. Children with this problem find it hard to concentrate, have difficulty organizing and exhibit impulsive behavior.

Studies of brain function show evidence of direct harm to the brains of young children who watch television for two or more hours a day. Watching television fosters development of brain circuits, or "habits of mind," that result in increased aggressiveness, lower tolerance levels and decreased attention span, in lieu of developing language circuits in the brain's left hemisphere.

Furthermore, exposure to violence on television has been linked to aggressive behavior in children.

Other problems associated with excessive television viewing are poor sleep quality and a greater likelihood of taking up smoking. A study two years ago by the Center for Child Health Outcomes in San Diego found that children aged 10 to 15 who watched five or more hours of television a day were six times as likely to start smoking as those who watched less than two hours a day.

Here are some suggestions for television viewing:

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Start by setting limits and household rules.

Don't use the TV as a reward or punishment.

Do not let your child watch television at meals or while doing homework.

Avoid using the TV as a baby sitter.

Plan your child's viewing by using a program guide and ratings to select the shows.

Whenever possible, watch TV with your children and talk about what you see.

Set a good example by limiting your own TV viewing.

Jane E. Brody is a New York Times staff writer and columnist who specializes in health and medical reporting.

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