Does fast-paced TV affect children?

Fast-paced and fantastical television shows can have an adverse effect on the children who watch them, new research has suggested. Published in the journal Pediatrics, the study revealed such programmes may hamper a youngster's readiness for learning and compromise their executive function.

Investigators at the University of Virginia noted that this can mean a child's ability to pay attention, moderate behaviour and solve problems can all be hindered by viewing frenetic cartoons such as SpongeBob Squarepants.

Angeline Lillard, a Psychology Professor at the institution's College of Arts and Sciences, suggested kids might identify with unfocused personalities and take on their characteristics as a consequence.

Professor Lillard also noted: "The fast pacing, where characters are constantly in motion from one thing to the next, and extreme fantasy ... may disrupt the child's ability to concentrate immediately afterward."

She explained parents need to understand that a child may therefore fail to act with adequate self control after watching such episodes.

However, Dr Barrie Gunter, Chartered Psychologist, is sceptical about these conclusions:

"The research reported by Angeline Lillard and Jennifer Peterson presents evidence that is interpreted to show that when children aged under four years watched a fast paced TV cartoon, they subsequently performed worse on some simple cognitive tests than did similar aged children who either watched a slower paced cartoon or who engaged in a drawing task. 

"In a controlled experiment, the researchers reported that the children who watched the fast-paced cartoon also displayed reduced ability to delay gratification (not to eat marshmallows and crackers when the experimenter left the room).

"The study provided no evidence that TV viewing per se was problematic because there was no apparent cognitive impairment effect of watching the slower-paced cartoon, nor did parental-reports of amount of TV the children normally watched exhibit a significant relationship with post-viewing cognitive performance or delay of gratification.

"A problem here lies with jumping to conclusions that a diet of specific types of TV programme can have deleterious effects on early cognitive development.

"The fact is that a normal viewing diet is likely to be diverse in terms of production formats. Moreover, no account is taken of how TV viewing might fit differently into the usual range of developmental experiences of children, some of which might counteract the TV viewing 'effects' purportedly identified here.

"Although the children were randomly assigned to experimental conditions, no pre-tests of cognitive ability were run and so we do not know for sure whether group differences were a result of the treatment effects.

"Further, the cognitive tests were performed immediately after viewing and one would need to know whether any impairment of executive function is long-lasting or is only temporary and then quickly dissipates. A second test performed perhaps an hour or two later would be needed to establish this. For the time being then, these findings and the authors' conclusions about them need to be treated with caution."