Television – The Great Thief


I have been rather afraid of writing this post, because it is without a doubt going to be rather difficult for many parents to swallow. The important thing, however, is to tell the truth (no matter how ugly), because our philosophy at Practically Speaking is that “when we know better, we do better”. So, stick with the post, to the very end, because this is an important truth.

We’re talking about television – the advent of which has changed the world (and our families) as we know it. Almost every family has one at the center of their living room, throwing out colourful images and noise, day in and day out. I don’t think there are many people in the modern world who do not have television-time as part of their everyday lives.

Television entertains, informs, shares and broadens our horizons – it certainly plays a critical role… for adults. It also mesmerises our children, and I am not above admitting that it’s my “babysitter” when I need to get dinner ready in the evenings. I had even bought a whole stash of ‘baby-appropriate’ dvds that suggest my baby will become a ‘genius’ or ‘einstein’ through watching them.

Never before in parenting history has there been entire product ranges (and channels) available to make television-watching more ‘appropriate’ for children, as young as three months old. Surely, if I am letting my baby watch a dvd that was specifically designed for him, it’s ok? Surely, television is as beneficial for our children as it is for us?

The simple and honest answer is “No”. Television is not good for babies or young children at all. It doesn’t matter what’s on, even if it’s a special dvd you spent your hard-earned money on. A whole series of scientific research projects confirms this for us. Sorry folks, that’s the ugly truth.

What do the scientists say?

The University of Washington studied more than 1000 families and reported that for every hour that infants of 8 – 16 months watched dvds such as “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Baby”, they understood 6-8 fewer words than other babies who were not exposed to such dvds (Associations between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children under Age 2 years – The Journal of Pediatrics, V151, Issue 4, Pgs 364-368). Interestingly, Disney, who own Baby Einstein, is now offering refunds to disgruntled US parents.

A study from Seattle examined more than 2500 children younger than 36 months, and found that for every hour of television watched daily, the risk of attention problems at age seven increased nearly 10 percent. They were more likely to be confused, impulsive, restless or obsessive about things in their lives – the problems were similar to symptoms of ADHD. (Attention-Deficit Risk Linked to Young Kids’ TV Time, Seattle Times, 5 April 2004)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV before the age of two years and that children over two years be limited to one to two hours per day of educational material on TV. (Eh-Oh! Pediatricians Ban TV for Toddlers, David Burke

In August 2009, France’s broadcasting authority banned the airing of TV shows aimed at children under three, after French psychologists found that: “Television viewing hurts the development of children under three years old and poses a certain number of risks, encouraging passivity, slow language acquisition, over-excitedness, troubles with sleep and concentration, as well as dependence on screens.”  (France Pulls Plug on TV Shows Aimed at Babies, CBC News, Wed Aug 20 2008)

Why does television have such a negative effect on children during the early years?

As adults, we can watch something on television and give it meaning – this is primarily because our brains are already wired. We have real life experiences behind us, we understand language and we have a frame of reference to draw from.

Young children, however, are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of television because a young child’s brain is being wired at a rate of half a million brain cell connections per second…(The Baby Brain-Drain, The Times, 1 Nov 2007, Dr Miriam Stoppard). The experiences that your child is having is literally shaping his brain, and the more often he uses certain pathways, the more ‘hardwired’ those neural pathways become.

Young children simply stare at the rapidly changing scenes and take in the noises without any understanding whatsoever. We know this for a fact because scientists using Positron Imaging Technology can see inside a young child’s brain when they’re watching television. They have discovered that only the visual and listening areas of the child’s brain is stimulated, while the areas of the brain used for communicating, learning, thinking, memorising, expressing personality and fine tuning social behaviour remain inactive and completely un-stimulated during television-time.

In stark contrast, when a parent reads to a child and plays various games with him, his brain lights up like a Christmas tree as links are rapidly formed between all the regions of the brain. For example, when you show your child a picture of a dog and explain how the dog jumps and barks, he has to use various parts of his brain to form a mental picture of this through his imagination – when he watches television, the work of understanding and imagining is literally stolen away from his young developing brain, and along with that, the brain development that could’ve taken place is also snatched away. This arguably makes television one of the greatest and most silent thieves in the modern child’s world.

Reading and interacting with your child gives him language (scientific research proves that spoken language on TV is just ‘white noise’ for your child, without any meaning). In addition, when you’re interacting with your child you can read his emotions and respond appropriately, giving a little more attention to an area he doesn’t quite understand or laughing at the parts that he finds amusing (television cannot do this).

As adults, we often use television as a relaxation tool, ‘spacing out’ in front of our television sets after a stressful or busy day, and many adults find that it helps them to fall asleep. For young children, the rapidly changing scenes and noise is so mesmerising, it can actually be equated to ‘baby crack cocaine’.

Watching television literally rewires a child’s brain during the early years – the result is a child whose brain is so used to side-stepping the language and thinking areas that it becomes the default setting of that child’s brain to react to information without understanding – not only when they’re watching television, but in the real world as well.

The result is child who literally looks without ‘seeing’ and hears without ‘listening’.

OK – so what if your child has already been exposed to large amounts of television?

As quoted by a writer for The Times, Dr Martin Ward-Platt believes, “of course, the thing that really makes a difference for a baby is interaction with a caregiver and there is nothing we can invent as a people substitute. But if a child watches some TV and is exposed to people for the rest of the time, they will do fine. What we don’t know is where the limit is, where you start to hold children back.”

In real life, if you have a strong immune system, your body can fight off small viral attacks, and if you exercise everyday you can indulge in that piece of chocolate cake without fear of putting on too much weight. Similarly, if your baby receives large amounts of loving one-on-one interaction and stimulation from the important people in her life, her brain will be more densely wired and therefore will be more resilient to the impact of short periods of television watching.

As a parent I didn’t understand the effects of television on my young baby, and knowing what I know now, I will make wiser choices. If you enjoy some ‘me-time’ or a cup of coffee while your young child is watching television in the morning or evening, it is not the end of the world. As long as you don’t for one second believe it is actually good for them in any way. Keep in mind that you need to ensure a healthy balance by giving your young child as much individual attention as possible, whenever you can. We literally have to counter-act the negative effects of television-viewing with the positive effects of large amounts of one-on-one interaction.

In our next post, we will give you tips on how to make wise television choices for your toddler (three years and older), so stay tuned!

Words: Loren Stow
when we know better… we do better  

*Practica Parents: It is quite interesting to discover that your child has different regions in the brain which control various skills and the more we exercise these skills, the more we are building highways between the various regions of brain – assisting them to ‘talk’ to each more effectively. You’ll note that in the 2-6 year section of the Practica Parents Guide, each activity is followed by a list of the various areas in the brain that are involved – because effective ‘communication’ between these areas is key to overall brain coherence.

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