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TV's bad effects on tots are reversible

Parents who fear television is rotting their toddlers' minds may find it's not too late to head off potential problems by turning off the tube and taking it out of their children's rooms, a report suggests.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health report that it's not only how many hours children spend in front of the TV, but at what age they watch that matters. They analyzed data from a national study in which parents of 2,707 children were interviewed, first when the children were 30-33 months old and again when they were 5, about their TV viewing and their behavior. Among the findings:

Children who watched two or more hours of TV a day at 30-33 months old but had reduced TV watching by the time they were 5 had no significant social or behavioral problems.

Those who didn't watch much TV as toddlers but were heavy (two hours or more daily) viewers by age 5 were having problems with social skills.

Those who had been sustained, heavy TV watchers from age 2 to 5 had deficits in social skills as well as behavior, including problems with attention and showing aggression.

Parents reported that 40 percent of children at age 5 have televisions in their bedrooms, a factor that was linked to sleep problems and may also "dampen the intensity with which children react to stimulation (or) changes in their environment," says Kamila Mistry, lead author of the report, which is in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.

The study did not examine what the children watched and can't show TV was the cause of later problems, but it does "tell parents that even if kids are watching TV early in life, and they stop, it could reduce the risk for behavioral and social problems later," Mistry says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for children under 2 and no more than two hours a day for older children.

UCLA educational psychologist Gordon Berry says the influence of TV watching has to be weighed in the context of what else is going on in the child's life. "Part of the problem is that while they're watching television, they'd be better off out playing or being read to or being played games with," Berry says.

TV shouldn't be the main source of relaxation or learning, but "I'm not one who really believes there should be a no-television diet, primarily because I think television properly used can be certainly one source of information for children. Children can learn a number of things, even at this young age, from a good television program."