November 2008 - TV and Child Development
It probably is not news to you that long term television viewing hinders brain development. The average child spends 3 and a half to 4 hours a day watching television. That does not even include "screen time" on the computer. The problem with a lot of exposure to television at an early age is that significant areas of the brain are not being developed. Elaine Johnson, a nueroscientist and speaker at the third annual bullying convention in Washington states "There is 'Relational Poverty' occurring as a result of spending less and less time face to face with others and more time being spent in front of a computer or television screen." People believe they are more connected to others with new technology but the opposite is true. Do you feel connected when your friend takes a phone call right in front of you when you are in mid-sentence? I certainly don't.
Dr. Johnson reports that brain circuitry development begins after birth and continues well into the early 30's. Recent research reported that intelligence can actually either be raised or lowered by 20 points based on experience. This is contrary to what was long thought of as "set in stone" biologically. The environment has a major impact on brain development.
When you watch television, brain activity actually switches from the left side of your brain (responsible for logical and critical analysis) to the right side of your brain (right brain activity causes the body to release chemicals which make you feel good-endorphins-a natural sedative.) Alpha brain waves are produced-same as in sleep-that creates a trance like state that allows one to take in information without processing or analyzing it. In other words you actually use your brain's critical analysis skills more by just sitting and thinking versus watching television.
Because of this "trance like state" that our brains go into, it is all the more important to be particularly careful of what our kids are viewing on t.v. The May 1998 AAP News reports that "repeated exposure to any stimulus in a child's environment may forcibly impact mental and emotional growth, either by setting up a particular circuitry (habits of mind) or by depriving the brain of other experiences." In other words, age appropriate skill development ( reading, playing outside, playing with a family member, homework, etc.) suffers when you watch television. "Two minute" minds become impatient with any material that require a depth of processing. That is why watching t.v. in the morning before school makes it difficult for the student to go to school and attend to the school format and environment where content does not change every 30 seconds in flashy colors and new images.
Dr. Elaine Johnson reported that mirror nuerons are responsible for the importance and potency of human relationships on our brain. These nuerons help us to imitate what we see. When our caregiver smiles at us as a baby, we smile back. We imitate what we watch. Our early relationships impact our emotional/social circuitry. In other words, if babies, toddlers, and young children are spending more time in front of the t.v., a significant shortage of "positive relationship circuitry" occurs. The wiring for pro-social and emotional learning is hindered.
Does this research mean television is bad? No, but it is important to view television as relaxation, not a learning tool or replacement for human contact and interaction. Here are some guidelines for families to follow:
1. Remove any t.v.'s from a child's bedroom-it is much harder to monitor their viewing and it is simply not necessary. (We own only one t.v. and it is in our family room so I know it can be done!)
2. Limit the amount of television to 1 hour a day or better yet, instill a no t.v. on school day rule. We instill the "no t.v. during school day as a family rule and I am not saying it is without some arguments but again, it can be done. (It also gives them something to look forward to on Friday.)
3. Monitor what your child/adolescent is watching (remember those mirror nuerons!).
4. The AAP recommends no t.v. for children under 2.
5. Remember that t.v. is fine in moderation but should be seen for what it is-relaxation (remember those alpha brain waves.)
6. Have a family game night or research other t.v. free activities.
7. Creat intentional viewing such as a family movie night where you are watching a movie with your children.
8. Talk with your kids about what they watched and what they thought of the show (increasing those critical analysis skills)and how the content affected their feelings (sad, frustrated, happy etc.).
9. Have your children tally all of the put-downs or aggressive acts in the show to examine the show's message to young viewers. I have our 4th graders tally put-downs during a 30 minute show as homework after a Steps to Respect lesson and you would be surprised how many they add up!
10. Monitor your own viewing as a parent to role-model other ways to spend your free time.