The Orienting Response
But why might viewing certain types of television, specifically in very early childhood, be associated with attention problems in later childhood?
When a very young child is riveted to the screen, parents may assume it is because the child is interested in the content.
In fact, as Christakis points out, the real reason for such fixation could be a primitive reflex known as the "orienting response."
The point of the orienting response is to get us to automatically focus attention on a strange sight or sound, in case it turns out to be a threat. Certain programs for babies that rely on quick edits or the element of surprise (a person or puppet popping up suddenly), many of which are very popular with parents, may be causing very young children to exhibit the orienting response.
Some experts worry that very young children exposed to programs with quick edits or too many surprises will be more susceptible to attention problems in later life. "The concern was that this level of stimulation, which was unnatural, would condition the developing mind to view that as normal," says Christakis in a 2008 interview with ABC (Australia) Radio. "Then by comparison the real world would be unsatisfying - it wouldn't be stimulating enough."
Many experts recommend that preschoolers watch no more than two hours of television per day. For babies (children under 2), a safer limit would be closer to one hour per day - preferably divided into two 30-minute segments. Most educational TV programs for young children are just under half an hour long. Allowing your baby to watch one or two of these programs per day would seem appropriate.
Pay attention to your baby as she is watching her TV show. If your child is under a year old and the show is new to her, you may notice her attention wander after only a few minutes. If and when this happens, stop the program and do something else. For babies under a year old, 10 to 15 minutes in a sitting and 30 minutes over the course of a day may be more appropriate limits. This is not only because a younger baby's attention will wander sooner, but also because younger babies spend fewer hours of the day awake. Use your judgment and make decisions based on your child.