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Dangers of Television Run Rampant

The hazards of watching television continue to pile up. Broadcasters, in the midst of a deluge of outrage over assaulting viewers with indecent content, have now been identified as perpetrators of childhood attention and obesity disorders.

On Tuesday, the results of a Harris Interactive Poll found that Americans blame TV for making them fat. Of more than 2,200 adults surveyed, a hefty 89 percent of them said TV commercials encouraged people to "eat or drink more than is good for them." Seven percent of those surveyed said no way, and 4 percent weren't sure.

Meanwhile, a study published in the April issue of "Pediatrics" may indicate that watching too much TV will result in a marked inability to pay attention to commercials long enough to be motivated to call Dominoes.

Researchers found that for every hour of daily television watched by toddlers three and younger, their risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder increased by nearly 10 percent. The study correlated the viewing habits of around 2,500 children between the ages of one and three to their propensity for ADHD by the age of seven. The assertion made by the researchers, led by Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, was that the rapidly changing images on television caused a few synapses to fry in children's developing brains.

In recent years, ADHD has become one of the most common childhood behavioral disorders, with no known cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Consequently, when "Pediatrics" spoke, people listened. News of the study circled the world. "The Irish Times," "China Daily," "The Gaurdian," and "The Sydney Morning Herald" were just a few of the international publications to pick up the story. The "Liverpool Daily News" headline read "TV Linked to Brain Flaws in Children."

Ironically or otherwise, National Public Radio was all over the story during morning shower hour on Monday, when it broke. (No data was available on the potential pediatric health effects of too much radio.) By Tuesday, the networks came out gunning. "The Early Show" on CBS featured child psychologist Robin Goodman stating that the link between TV viewing and ADHD was "a huge leap."

Indeed, a publication from the National Institute of Mental Health, at http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/adhd.cfm specifically states that ADHD is "not usually caused by too much TV, food allergies, excess sugar, poor home life or poor schools." The NIMH is instead focusing on drug use during pregnancy, environmental toxins and genetics.

Lethality aside, programming aimed at pre-schoolers, once the primary domain of PBS, has grown with the increase in channel choices because the demographic dovetails nicely with stuffed toys and other branded merchandise. Shows like Nickelodeon's "Bob the Builder," "Dora the Explorer," and "Blues Clues," and PBS's "Barney" and "Sesame Street" are particularly popular among the training-pants set, but those networks point out that the Seattle study made no assertions about content.

"The study does find a link between TV viewing and attention problems, but it clearly doesn't state that viewing is the cause of such problems," said a spokesman for Nickelodeon. "We feel that the study doesn't take into account potentially significant factors like specific program content, the definition of viewing and the reasons parents put their kids in front of the television."

A report Kaiser Family Foundation survey last year found that about two out of five children under age of two are put down in front of the television every day, and a quarter have TVs in their own rooms.

A spokeswoman at PBS emphasized that network's efforts to get parents to take charge of what their kids watch on TV. PBS Ready-To Learn conducts nearly 10,000 workshops a year for more than 150,000 parents and early childhood educators of children eight and younger. At these workshops, adults learn how to choose appropriate media for children and how to get the most out of watching quality television with their children.

"PBS KIDS encourages caregivers to limit and supervise their children's TV viewing habits as well as interact with them during and after approved programs. Studies have proven that educational television can have a positive impact on children over the age of two, but there is no conclusive research to date that supports whether television has a positive or negative effect on children under two - key stage in a child's brain development."

In other, vicariously related news, "National TV Turn-off" week is April 19-25.