Children may spend more than seven hours a day sat looking at a screen and this can increase risks of obesity and heart disease, Dr Sigman claims. In addition there are other symptoms resulting from watching too much television including a lack of attentiveness, sleep disorders and even autism.
Television has long been blamed for a number of social ills. But there is growing evidence that the flickering screen might result in more than square eyes. "Irrespective of what our children are watching or doing on the screen, a clear relationship is emerging between daily hours of screen time and negative medical, psychological, behavioural and educational consequences," Dr Sigman says, "The more hours per day, the more likely the risk of these negative consequences and the greater their intensity."
He says that most of the damage appears to occur after one-and-a-half hours viewing per day, irrespective of the quality of the content. Worryingly a child is often exposed to three to five times this amount. The concerns have resulted in some countries placing restrictions on content. France, for example, banned TV programmes aimed at under-threes two years ago [Daily Mail].
It is not the first time that concerns have been raised over the effects of television on children. In 2004 a report revealed a connection between attentiveness and television exposure. Dr. Dimitri Christakis from the University of Washington in Seattle, said, "We found that watching television before the age of 3 increases the chances that children will develop attentional problems at age 7." The study noted that teachers had seen a virtual "epidemic" of children with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), something which had increased dramatically over the last 25 years. These children have less ability to listen, pay attention, and engage in independent problem solving. The teachers have often blamed "the advent of fast-paced, attention-getting children's programming" for the epidemic of ADHD, and authors of the 2004 study believe they are right [Medicine Net].
But it is not only children who are at risk. A study published last year warned that watching television prior to going to bed can result in poor sleep quality and even lead to chronic health problems. Psychiatrists found that watching television was a common pre-sleep activity and sleep patterns were often based around schedules rather than sunset or biological factors.
Dr Mathias Basner, of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology, University of Pennsylvania, said, "While the timing of work may not be flexible, giving up some TV viewing in the evening should be possible to promote adequate sleep. According to our results, watching less television in the evening and postponing work start time in the morning appear to be the candidate behavioural changes for achieving additional sleep and reducing chronic sleep debt" [Telegraph].
The saturation of technology may be making things worse. Outside the living room there are the distractions of the Internet via the PC. Smartphones have made it possible to continue browsing the net while sat on trains or buses and the television may even invade the coffee shop or pub. Reading is fast becoming screen-based as web based news portals replace the newspaper and books are now virtual with the advent of the iPad, Kindle and similar devices.
The traditional reading of the morning paper has been pushed aside by breakfast TV and radio. Those that drive to work may be led by a small screen and a voice giving out instructions, while the radio drones in the back ground. Commuters on buses and trains can be seen buried in games or looking at mobile screens, and for many people the day might be spent staring at a computer monitor. There is no respite at the end of the working day as people return home and flop onto the sofa to catch the evening news, a late night film or DVD before retiring to bed and repeat the same routine again.
Perhaps we will all end up square-eyed with the attention span of a goldfish. Even those who use the net are becoming less absorbed in what they read, and people may spend only a few seconds on a page [BBC]. In fact the chance of you having read this far is probably very slim. But well done if you have [pictured: cover of the 1979 album Remote Control by The Tubes].
tvnewswatch, London, UK