updated 11/5/2007 8:53:09 AM ET 2007-11-05T13:53:09

“Arthur” and “Barney” are OK for toddler TV-watching. But not “Rugrats” and certainly not “Power Rangers,” reports a new study of early TV-watching and future attention problems.

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The research involved children younger than 3, so TV is mostly a no-no anyway, according to the experts. But if TV is allowed, it should be of the educational variety, the researchers said.

Every hour per day that kids under 3 watched violent child-oriented entertainment their risk doubled for attention problems five years later, the study found. Even nonviolent kids’ shows like “Rugrats” and “The Flintstones” carried a still substantial risk for attention problems, though slightly lower.

On the other hand, educational shows, including “Arthur,” “Barney” and “Sesame Street” had no association with future attention problems.

Interestingly, the risks only occurred in children younger than age 3, perhaps because that is a particularly crucial period of brain development. Those results echo a different study last month that suggested TV watching has less impact on older children’s behavior than on toddlers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children younger than 2 and limited TV for older children.

The current study by University of Washington researchers was prepared for release Monday in November’s issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Content matters
Previous research and news reports on TV’s effects have tended to view television as a single entity, without regard to content. But “the reality is that it’s not inherently good or bad. It really depends on what they watch,” said Dr. Dimitri Christakis, who co-authored the study with researcher Frederick Zimmerman.

Their study was based on parent questionnaires. They acknowledge it’s observational data that only suggests a link and isn’t proof that TV habits cause attention problems. Still, they think the connection is plausible.

The researchers called a show violent if it involved fighting, hitting people, threats or other violence that were central to the plot or a main character. Shows listed included “Power Rangers,” “Lion King” and “Scooby Doo.”

These shows, and other kids’ shows without violence, also tend to be very fast-paced, which may hamper children’s ability to focus attention, Christakis said.

Shows with violence also send a flawed message, namely that “if someone gets bonked on the head with a rolling pin, it just makes a funny sound and someone gets dizzy for a minute and then everything is back to normal,” Christakis said.

Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade association for stations and networks including those with entertainment and educational children’s TV shows, said he had not had a chance to thoroughly review the research and declined to comment on specifics.

Supervision key
Wharton said his group believes “there are many superb television programs for children, and would acknowledge that it is important for parents to supervise the media consumption habits of young children.”

The study involved a nationally representative sample of 967 children whose parents answered government-funded child development questionnaires in 1997 and 2002. Questions involved television viewing habits in 1997. Parents were asked in 2002 about their children’s behavior, including inattentiveness, difficulty concentrating and restlessness.

The researchers took into account other factors that might have influenced the results — including cultural differences and parents’ education levels — and still found a strong link between the non-educational shows and future attention problems.

Peggy O’Brien, senior vice president for educational programming and services at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, said violence in ads accompanying shows on commercial TV might contribute to the study results.

She said lots of research about brain development goes into the production of educational TV programming for children, and that the slower pace is intentional.

“We want it to be kind of an extension of play” rather than fantasy, she said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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