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Medical News Today: Couch potato toddlers at risk of future bullying

The amount of time that toddlers spend in front of the TV influences their risk of being bullied by the time they reach sixth grade, according to the results of a new study.
A young child on a sofa with a television remote.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children aged 2 and above should watch television for no more than 1-2 hours per day.

The study, published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, analyzed the relationship between TV watching at the age of 29 months with self-reported bullying at the age of 12.

"It is plausible that early lifestyle habits characterized by less effortful interactive experiences, such as early televiewing, can ultimately result in social skill deficits," explains study author Prof. Linda Pagani, of the University of Montreal and the affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children's hospital.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children in the US spend an average of 7 hours a day using entertainment media, including televisions, computers and other electronic devices. They state that excessive media use can in turn lead to attention problems, obesity and difficulties in school.

Some surveys have found that around 40% of infants are watching some form of video by the age of 5 months, with this proportion rising to 90% by the age of 2 years. But time spent in front of a screen is time spent away from family interaction, the primary way for children to develop socially.

Prof. Pagani suggests that there are a number of developmental deficits associated with early television exposure which may make children more vulnerable to bullying when they go to school. These deficits are linked with brain functions driving interpersonal problem solving, emotional regulation and positive social contact.

"Finally," she adds, "TV viewing may lead to poor eye contact habits - a cornerstone of friendship and self-affirmation in social interaction."

For the study, Prof. Pagani and colleagues followed 991 girls and 1,006 boys as they grew up. The TV watching habits of the participating children at the age of 29 months was reported by their parents while the children answered questions about their experiences of bullying in grade 6 themselves.

After taking into account potentially confounding factors that could increase the likelihood of a child being bullied - their cognitive abilities, behavior and family income, for example - the researchers found that the longer children watched TV for as toddlers, the higher their risk of being bullied later on was.

"Every standard deviation unit increase of 53 minutes in daily televiewing at 29 months predicted an 11% standard deviation unit increase in bullying by sixth-grade classmates," explains Prof. Pagani.

The AAP recommend that children and teens should engage with televisions and other forms of entertainment media for no more than 1-2 hours per day, and when they do it should be high-quality content that is developmentally appropriate.

They state that children should spend half of the 24 hours in a day meeting basic needs such as eating and sleeping. The remaining hours should be spent on establishing relationships and enriching activities. Prof. Pagani explains how important play is as part of this:

"Because play represents an unstructured activity that does not require direct compliance, it allows children to be creative and provides parents with a chance to get acquainted with how their children perceive and interact with others on a socioemotional level. Having a chance to interact also gives a chance to correct or promote certain social behaviors."

If children spend too much time watching TV during their early years, Pagani states that a "time debt" can be created for activities that include social play.

Bullying in childhood is known to increase the risk of long-term mental health issues, such as depression and low self-esteem. The findings suggest that ensuring children do not spend too much time in front of TV screens could be a way to safeguard their future mental health.

"This prospective association, across a 10-year period, suggests the need for better parental awareness, acknowledgment, and compliance with existing recommendations put forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics," the authors conclude.

Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study that found children with psychiatric problems grow up to have a greater risk of health, legal, financial and social problems as adults, even if the disorders do not persist into adulthood.

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