Which Behaviors Hurt Us, Which Help

Dr. Dimitri Christakis with his children

Dr. Dimitri Christakis with his children. Christakis' interest in media and children was spurred when he saw how his son was mesmerized by TV as an infant.

On the road to a healthy future, information can be the best medicine. That's the premise behind health outcomes research and the work of Dr. Dimitri Christakis.

Besides his role as a Children's physician, Christakis directs the Child Health Institute (CHI).

The institute, which is affiliated with the University of Washington, specializes in health outcomes research. Researchers there seek answers to "immediate and pressing" questions about behaviors and practices that hurt or help a child's health.

A question that many parents share began nagging Christakis after his first child was born eight years ago: How is the explosion of electronic media influencing my child's growth and development?

In his quest for answers, Christakis is producing compelling evidence for parents to consider as they make decisions about their children's consumption of TV, video games and the like.

It's not a matter of de-technologizing children, but rather optimizing technology to serve their best interests.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis

"It's not a matter of de-technologizing children, but rather optimizing technology to serve their best interests," says Christakis, who has written a book about how families can make TV work for them that will be published this fall.

One finding in particular stands out. A study led by Christakis revealed that each hour of TV watched per day at ages 1 to 3 increases the risk of attention problems at age 7 by almost 10% — a conclusion that supports American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations that parents should avoid letting children under 2 watch any TV at all.

The study ignored content, since toddlers do not understand what they're watching. Toddlers can, however, become conditioned to crave the rapid-movement stimulation that TV provides — and that can ultimately chip away at their attention span, warns Christakis.

Building on those findings, Christakis collaborated with Michelle Garrison, MPH, to examine whether "educational" videos, DVDs, video games and computer programs aimed at young children live up to their billing.

"We found absolutely no evidence these products delivered on any of their claims," said Christakis. "In fact, based on the attention-disorders research I've done, there is concern that they actually may be harmful."

Health outcomes research isn't just about identifying problems, though. It's also about identifying remedies.

Christakis currently is involved in a study involving two groups of families with children between 1½ and 2½ years old.

One group is receiving sets of blocks and monthly "blocktivities" that encourage children and parents to play together. The other group won't receive the blocks and "blocktivities" until the study ends.

What does Christakis hope to discover? Whether the children whose families get the blocks experience an increase in language acquisition, cognitive skills and attention span — and a decrease in TV viewing.