How Much is Too Much?
What TV is really doing to our kids.
Most of us did it. Now our children do it too. That is, watch television every day for an average of 16 and as many as 28 hours each week. In fact, television is such an ubiquitous, fully integrated part of our cultural experience – 99% of Canadian homes have at least one TV – we forget how recent a phenomenon it really is. In contrast with human evolution on the planet (at least 150,000 years), we’ve only had regularly broadcast TV for about 50 years.
We may think “if it was alright for us, it must be okay for our kids.” Perhaps we need to think again. Researchers are only now making strong links between young children’s TV watching and its negative impact on their sleep patterns, attention, memory, learning, and speech and language development. What’s a parent to do? Though daily TV is as common as toast for breakfast, there are easy ways we can manage our child’s TV consumption without launching world war III at home.
Our kids’ brains
We used to think of the human brain as set in its ways, and naturally becoming more active – with the arrival of higher order thinking – the older we got. With the advent of MRI or imaging technology, scientists now know the human brain is very malleable, retains this plasticity as it develops for up to 30 years, and is actually most active in the first four to six years of life. Because this rapid early brain growth depends on making repetitive connections and is highly influenced by environmental experiences, age-appropriate interactivity – with adults, the environment and other children – is crucial for children’s proper development.
Play-based learning – child-directed, spontaneous activities that are fun and include make-believe – has the most powerful positive impact on a child’s brain development. Play offers opportunities for intellectual growth and creativity, while acting as a vehicle for problem solving and emotional and social skill building.
Without regular opportunities for active engagement in their own pretend worlds and the real world around them, children’s brains can become stunted or underdeveloped in specific areas. TV provides almost none of this kind of necessary stimulation for young brains, so time spent watching literally equates to time lost growing.
When kids watch
Tiny electrical currents exist in the human body as part of our normal bodily functions: our nervous system communicates by transmitting electric impulses, etc. The human body has its own measurable EMF (electro magnetic field), which in turn is affected by the EMF of the TV. Simply sitting in front of a television exerts specific physical influences on the human body. Colicky babies, for instance, can become mesmerized by TV (sometimes a good thing for exhausted parents).
For most children, however, watching television disengages the front portion or problem solving/creative part of the brain in a way that makes them passive receivers rather than active participants. Even toddlers playing around a turned-on TV have been observed by researchers as less actively engaged than those playing without TV present. This type of generic passivity undermines the specific type of learning that is critical to their ongoing development – TV literally makes children less smart during viewing time.
Since 2005, a number of studies have proven that TV watching by children under three years old results in irregular nap and bedtimes, reducing sleep quantity, adversely affecting sleep patterns and interfering with growth and development. These studies, cross-referenced with those of school-aged children whose TV watching was linked to late bedtimes and sleep disturbances, have given rise to a couple of theories:
Television has a physical impact on the viewer because the frequency of its bright light suppresses the brains melatonin production enough to negatively affect sleep onset and overall restfulness.
The artificial stimulation caused by a television show’s fast-paced images, action, violence and loud noise inhibits the relaxation necessary prior to sleep.
Either way, these are two of the many reasons why the American Pediatric Society recommends that children under the age of two years (24 months) spend no time whatsoever watching television – a far cry from the 7-10 hours per week Canadian families currently report their infants and toddlers spend in front of the tube.
The message in the medium
Beyond the physical effects of screen time on a child’s growing brain, the programming they’re watching can have an acutely unfavourable effect on their learning and behaviour. Though studies have failed to make perfect links between a school-aged child’s TV watching and a diagnosis of ADHD, recent detailed research involving children under three years old tells a different story.
Researchers made a clear connection between the amount and type of television pre-schoolers watched and their resulting attention problems by age seven. The more these children had watched violent or nonviolent entertainment programs as compared to strictly educational shows, the greater the reported increase in restlessness, impulsivity and difficulty concentrating later on. The same link exists between pre-school TV watching and aggressive or anti-social behaviour in school-aged boys. Those boys who were reported by parents and teachers as disobedient, destructive, cheating, being mean to others or feeling no regret, were the ones who had spent the greater number of hours watching commercial programs containing violence when they were younger.
So, is it the medium or the message that’s the problem? Perhaps both. The power of television is two-fold: the medium itself turns off the child’s critical thinking skills producing a mental vulnerability or kind of ‘brainwashing’ effect, while the content is delivered with flashing lights, fast-paced scene changes and quick, colourful edits that artificially stimulate the young viewer. The result is a child increasingly intolerant of the slow pace of ‘real life’ and utterly susceptible to the negative messaging of commercial television programming and advertisements.
What to do?
The truth is, we just can’t know what the full extent of prolonged TV exposure will do to human brain development, because the technology simply hasn’t been around long enough for us to find out. However, enough research does exist to set off the parental alarm bells where preschool children are involved. The bottom line: no TV is really the best choice for our little ones. Less TV, with a focus on educational programming – slower paced shows that include positive messaging and/or language, math, art, science, social or emotional lessons – is better for our school-age kids. However, if regular TV watching is an inevitability in your household, as it does seem to be in 99% of Canadian homes, then consider maximizing your child’s positive experience by managing their viewing using the tips at right.