kids in the hallIt’s report card time here in New Mexico and I am getting lots of phone calls from parents who have recently had parent teacher conferences. By far, the biggest referral I get is for kids who are suspected of having attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD).

Almost 20 years ago, I began collecting material for my dissertation which was about the relationship between ADHD, empathy, and perspective taking (the ability to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings). At that time, I was curious to learn more about a disorder that appeared to be increasing within the population. The majority of researchers believed that ADHD was, in most cases, related to genes or a problem during the pregnancy or birth.

Now, two decades later, parents are still wondering whether or not ADD or ADHD is increasing. Now, toxins such as pesticides, drugs (prescribed or illicit), and alcohol during pregnancy have been associated with higher incidences of attention deficits. When looking at these factors, the time of the exposure and the amount of exposure (the dose) have to be considered. For example, consider timing– when pregnant women drink alcohol during the first couple of days after conception, there is little evidence that any damage is done—not that anyone thinks that drinking any alcohol during pregnancy is entirely safe. But pregnant women drinking during the time of brain development are at risk of exposing and permanently hurting their developing babies. Furthermore, consider dose–the more women drink alcohol during pregnancy, the worse the effects.

Lately, media has been considered to be an additional risk factor for attention deficit disorder. A study done by Zimmerman and Christakis in 2006 concluded that non-educational television viewing before the age of 3 was associated with attention problems five years later. Other studies have looked at the differences between violent television watching, total hours of television per day, exposure to video games, and other sorts of media exposure and attention or educational problems. There are many different results in these various studies, but most point to one conclusion.

Consider media (and that includes television, video games, the internet, smart phones, tablets, etc.) as a possible toxin. Common sense suggests that the timing and the dose matter. In other words, a dose of too much media can be toxic. And the damage that the toxin can induce is related to the timing of the toxin. So, if a child is exposed to too much media during childhood then the danger is great. Bottom line: turn the stuff off and let your kids play, run around, color, read books, and go to school. That isn’t always easy to do, but after all, you’re the parent and your job is to protect your kids from danger.

Photo by Ivan T, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.