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Crankier babies may get more TV time

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© iStockphoto.com / Jane Norton © iStockphoto.com / Jane Norton

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, April 14, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Fussy and demanding babies are likely to spend slightly more time plopped in front of a TV or computer screen when they're toddlers than are "easier" babies, new research finds.

It's not clear just what this finding means. Parents could be trying to get a break from their high-maintenance children, or the kids could be naturally drawn to screens. The study didn't explore what the kids were watching, so it's not clear if those extra minutes of "screen time" -- an average of nine minutes a day -- were harmful, beneficial or somewhere in between.

But the main finding is still intriguing, said study lead author Dr. Jenny Radesky, a fellow with the department of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center. "The children who really had difficulties with regulating their emotions, calming themselves down and sleeping well wound up watching significantly more media when they were toddlers," she said.

Radesky launched the study to better understand young children, like her own, who can be fussy and difficult. "I know how stressful that can be as a parenting experience for new parents," she said.

It may not be temporary, Radesky said. High-maintenance kids can grow up into high-maintenance adults who have a hard time coping with life and its challenges, she said.

But it's not clear how much being fussy and irritable -- at age 2 or age 52 -- has to do with genes and how much has to do with nurture and other factors. And being demanding isn't necessarily a universally bad trait for an adult. It could, for example, make someone a fine CEO.

Radesky also wanted to explore the issue of "screen time" -- sitting in front of a computer monitor or TV screen.

She and her colleagues pulled statistics from surveys of parents of 7,450 kids who were born in 2001 and tracked for a couple of years. At the age of 9 months, 39 percent were deemed to have moderate or severe problems with so-called "self-regulation," suggesting they're generally fussier, moodier and more irritable and demanding than the other kids.

These children looked at screens an average of 2 hours and 29 minutes a day, according to their parents, nine minutes more than the average level of "screen time" for the other kids.

Some of the parents might not have accurately reported how much screen time their kids got, so the numbers could be wrong. The study is also a bit out of date when it comes to the evolution of screen time: Parents were surveyed before the dawn of iPads and smartphones.

In general, researchers frown on exposing kids of any age to a lot of screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 not watch any TV "or other entertainment media" because they learn best by interacting with people.

Of course, many parents don't follow those guidelines because they want to occupy their children so they can work, do chores or simply relax.

Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, praised the study and pointed to a potential risk from using TV as a way to distract troublesome kids.

At issue, he said, is whether the child is learning a valuable way to cope. "We all use the media as a coping strategy. You have a hard day at work, and you just want to flop in front of the TV. But distraction is a low-level problem-solving strategy. What if that's the only skill you've got?"

Gentile acknowledged that questions remain. For example, he said, researchers haven't determined if screen time might actually make fussy and demanding kids even more fussy and demanding.

In a second study in the same journal, researchers at MassGeneral Hospital for Children and the Harvard School of Public Health found an association between more TV viewing/having a TV in the bedroom in early childhood and shorter sleep, especially among minority children.

What's next for research? Radesky said a study to be released soon will shed light on what kids are actually watching when they get "screen time." The current study doesn't examine the content of programming, meaning there's no way to know if it's educational.

"I really want to know if this is a good thing," she said. "Are parents getting a break from their more intense children by putting [them] in front of educational media? Or is it worse because they're missing out on more educational activities?"

The study was published online April 14 and appears in the May issue of the journal Pediatrics.

More information

For more about "screen time" and children, try the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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