"A 'good' brain for learning develops strong and widespread neural highways that can quickly and efficiently assign different aspects of a task to the most efficient system… Such efficiency is developed only by active practice in thinking and learning which, in turn, builds increasingly stronger connections. A growing suspicion among brain researchers is that excessive television viewing may affect the development of these kinds of connections."
— Jane M. Healy, Ph.D, author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think And What We Can Do About It.
WANT your child to grow up into budding geniuses in maths, language or music? Or maybe you just want him or her to do well in school, or to become an intelligent, thinking adult. If so, keep them away from television.
Watching TV can make a child less intelligent because TV is an IQ killer, a brain freezer, creativity strangler, thought inhibitor, time stealer, sleep disrupter, playtime plunderer — and more.
Numerous studies have found that the actual act of watching TV is even more dangerous and potentially damaging to the brain of the developing child than what's on TV.
How does TV harm the brain and affect a child's learning skills, and what can parents do about it? Read on — and be warned.
TV's effects on the developing brain
According to a University of Chicago study, reported in the Journal of Comparative Neurology, the first 3 years of a child's life are important for brain development as this is the time when various parts of the brain are "wired".
In fact, the time lost from birth through age 5 cannot be made up for in later years. Certain aspects of brain development only occur during certain ages, and a child who misses out on the appropriate stimuli during this period may be disadvantaged from then on.
Optimal learning of different skills that will benefit children for life should take place during this time when the brain is being wired, scientists say.
An infant, for example, can recognise music it heard during foetal development. Newborns can do simple math long before they can speak, and foreign languages are more easily learned in pre-school or primary school than in secondary school.
How the brain is "wired"
"Wiring of the brain" refers to the explosive burst of the connections between the various synapses of the brain cells after birth.
Synapses are the telephone lines that enable brain cells to communicate. Trillions are formed during the first 2 years of life. It is believed that they are overproduced to guarantee that enough are available to form neural networks for vision, speech, thinking, emotions and other mental capacities.
Some parts of the brain (eg: the visual cortex) are wired rapidly in the first year of life and need little coaxing other than exposure to people, objects and movement to develop.
The auditory cortex, which processes sound, explodes with new connections after birth and maintains this high level of activity until about age 12. Many experts now believe this is the best time for learning music and foreign languages.
The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in processing higher thoughts and motivation, undergoes an initial growth spurt after birth, but it does not appear to be fully developed until early adolescence. This may be the best time to teach such things as calculus.
The great explosion of synapses after birth enables the brain to learn how to make itself work from the experiences it encounters.
Synapses that are not activated by sounds, touch, sight, smell or taste are discarded. Nearly half of the connections eventually are pruned away when they are not incorporated into neural networks.
Play — for brain development
Appropriate mental stimulation during this time plays an important role in helping the developing brain reach its potential. But we need to realise what children are able to learn at different ages and not cram them with information they are not ready to handle — especially not by exposing them to TV.
Some of the most important types of stimulation include talking to an infant from birth and reading to the child. The brain also develops through play — something that TV watching deprives children of.
TV has been reported to bring about the death of spontaneous, imaginative play, which is necessary for the development of neural pathways in early childhood that are required for healthy brain development.
That is why limited play experience can cause developmental abnormalities which may not be reversible.
This was clearly demonstrated in a study done by Marian Cleeves Diamond, a professor of neuroanatomy at the University of California at Berkeley, who pioneered brain research in this area 30 years ago.
Diamond studied the brain size of caged rats that were given toys to play with, and compared them with those of rats that were without these stimuli.
She found that the rats in the "enriched" environment had heavier and larger brains when autopsied and showed the increase nerve branching that allows the cells to communicate better with each other.
An "enriched" environment, says Diamond, is an environment where a child's language skills and creativity are challenged by playing with toys, reading or talking.
Unconstrained, active play is also important to a child as it provides a release for the natural, effervescent energy of childhood, and is said to help children fine-tune their emotions.
Damaged & delayed speech
ACCORDING to a 10-year study of babies and toddlers by Dr Sally Ward, a leading authority in the US on the speech development of young children, television was a "very important factor" in delaying the speech development in the 1 in 5 children found to have problems.
The study found that the background noise from televisions stop children from learning to talk as early as they should.
At 8 months, they neither recognised their names nor basic words like "juice" and "bricks". At 3, they had the language of 2-year-olds.
All the evidence showed, said Dr Ward, that children whose language was below standard at the age of 3 could be set back for life.
"They are likely to be educational failures in all sorts of ways. They will go to school with depressed language levels and the whole educational progress is held back."
Although children may hear new words on a TV show, this is not the same as speaking. A child rarely develops proficiency with speech simply by watching TV or by getting older.
If they are watching TV, they aren't spending time talking. Children generally start to talk by speaking single words, then progress to short sentences, then to groups of sentences.
A child who spends time watching TV loses the time needed for conversation, and may well find difficulty becoming articulate and fluent, and be less able to speak and write in complete sentences than the child who, it seems "just never stops talking".
Reading to a child, and speaking to a child directly, aid the development of speaking skills.
Not allowed to think
A CRUCIAL element of thinking is extrapolating from what you know and figuring out how it applies in a new situation. School requires this, TV does not.
A highly active child will remain inactive while watching TV because that is what the medium requires. Both mind and body are passive. Needless to say, a child is also not allowed to think when watching TV.
A child who doesn't think doesn't learn. And a child who doesn't learn cannot excel academically.
Kate Moody explains why TV is a thought terminator in the book Growing Up On Television: "The picture on the TV changes every 5 or 6 seconds, either by changing the camera angle or cutting to an entirely new scene. One researcher refers to these events as jolts per minute, noting that as time is cut up, the brain is conditioned to change at the expense of continuity of thought."
TELEVISION leaves little scope for the imagination. So says Dr Patti Valkenburg and Dr Tom van de Voort of the Centre of Child Media Studies at Leiden, Holland, who have reviewed all the research carried out over 40 years — with disturbing results.
The studies they reviewed looked for differences in the creative imagination of children from homes with television compared with those from homes without.
Tests ranging from teachers' assessments to games of "just suppose" were carried out. Of the 17 studies analysed, covering many hundreds of children aged from 3-16, not one produced evidence that television boosted creativity.
In contrast, 10 of the studies showed that television was linked with a significant reduction in creative imagination.
After analysing decades of international research, the two psychologists have failed to find a single study backing the idea that television stimulates children.
Unable to concentrate
RESEARCH done by Jane Holmes Bernstein, a neurologist at Children's Hospital in Boston, found that teachers reported it was significantly more difficult for learning-disabled children who watched television to listen and pay attention for extended periods than it was for their peers who did not watch television.
Research conducted at the US National Institute of Mental Health concludes that extensive exposure to television may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention.
Such decreased attention span is due to the pacing of the TV programme or movie, which determines that a child will watch one image for 3 seconds, another for 7 seconds, another for 5 seconds, and so on. Since the images change rapidly, so does the shift of the child's attention.
The determined length of a TV programme before a commercial interruption can also condition a child to a "commercial break" attention span. The Wall Street Journal (10 February 1994) relates the experience of professional story teller Odds Bodkin who performs before some 10,000 people a year, most of them children. After about 7 minutes, he says, restlessness sets in as the children's inner clocks anticipate a commercial break.
A child's internal control of the attention span diminishes as he or she becomes a mere spectator when watching TV. When this happens for, say, 4 hours a day throughout early childhood, the likely outcome is an uncontrolled brain.
This was demonstrated in an experiment by Jennings Bryant, a professor of communications at the University of Alabama.
Bryant exposed pre-schoolers to 4 weeks of Sesame Street, MTV: Music Television and network shows in concentrated doses and found the children who watched MTV more distractible, less vigilant in their tasks, and more aggressive in their play than children who watched the slower-paced shows.
The ability to mentally focus, attain and sustain concentration over a period of time is an internal process developed in early childhood.
A well-developed attention span can develop if we give our children mentally challenging activities on a regular basis.
Besides bestowing children with a short attention span, TV watching can also cause disturbed sleep which further impairs concentration.
A study done at a paediatric sleep disorders clinic at Hasbro Children's Hospital in the US, has found that children who watch a lot of television are more likely to resist going to bed, have trouble sleeping or wake up more.
Lack of sleep could affect your child's alertness and concentration in school and can interfere with the completion of homework assignments. These could in turn, affect your child's grades and ultimately, his or her academic achievement.
Attention Deficit Disorder
THE frenetic pace of television, with its rapidly changing sound and images, may overwhelm the nervous system of some young children and lead to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) — previously known as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) — characterised by consistent inattention, hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour, or combinations of these 3 behaviours.
There is enough research to suggest that prohibiting children under 5 from watching too much TV will lessen the chance he or she will develop ADD.
According to Healy, the fast-paced, attention-grabbing "features" of children's programming — eg: rapid zooms and pans, flashes of colour, quick movement in the peripheral (ie side) visual field, and sudden loud noises) deprive a child of practice in using his own brain independently (as in games, hobbies, social interaction or just "fussing around").
Such features were modelled after advertising research, which determined that this technique is the best way to engage the brain's attention involuntarily.
"I have talked to many parents of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder who found the difficulty markedly improved after they took away television viewing privileges," she says.
Lowers academic performance
WATCHING a lot of television may make it difficult for children to learn to read, to keep their attention focussed, and do well in school. When children spend hours watching TV, they are not engaging in important learning opportunities such as playing, reading, writing, studying or socializing.
Across the US, teachers are reporting an epidemic of attention deficit disorder, failing academic abilities, language difficulties (which extend to reading comprehension as well as oral expression) and weak problem-solving skills — all of which have been associated with watching TV.
As far back as 1977, warnings have been sounded that television viewing turns children into passive, incommunicative "zombies" who cannot play, cannot create, and cannot even think very clearly.
According to a 1994 report from the US Department of Education, academic achievement drops sharply for children who watch more than 10 hours a week, or an average of 2 hours a day of TV.
A 1980 study by the California Department of Education which studied the TV habits and test scores of half a million children, found that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time a child spends watching TV and their scores on standardized achievement tests — the more TV watched, the lower the scores.
Poor reading ability
"WHEN children commit time looking at TV, they're not spending time reading. When a child reads a novel, he has to self-create whole scenarios, he has to create images of who these people are, what their emotions are, what their tones of voice are, what their environment looks like, what the feeling of this environment is.
These self-created scenarios are important, and television leaves no room for that creative process… Brains are designed to meet cognitive challenges. It's just like muscles: If you don't exercise them they wither. If you don't exercise brains, they wither."
— Dr Jerre Levy
A bio-psychologist at the University of Chicago, and an authority on the brain's hemispheric development
ACCORDING to Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., an educational psychologist and author of several books on children and the brain, too much television viewing can lower academic performance, especially reading ability.
Reading requires depth or processing, but a child's "2-minute mind", acquired from too much TV watching can easily become impatient with this effort required in reading.
Watching TV is a one-way communication. The child becomes passive and is not allowed to think and this freezes the brain. On the other hand, when a child responds to the sights, sounds, feelings, smells and tastes around him , new connections called synapses are built in his brain.
The synapses form pathways that are necessary for reading comprehension, analytical thinking, and sustained attention and problem-solving.
When a young child doesn't have the thinking done for him and the images displayed in front of him, his brain must go to work to create a picture using his imagination. This results in new connections as the brain analyses and solves problems to complete its understanding of a concept. The more work the brain does, the more it becomes capable of doing it.
With TV, a child doesn't imagine much because the images are already there for him or her on the screen. When the time comes to draw upon creative thinking skills in school and other settings, the connections in the brain required for the tasks aren't available. The child has no prior experience for imagining what a scene in history the teacher is describing looks like or what an angry crowd in the scene might sound like.
The child has to scramble to make sense of what she is hearing from the teacher, but there is no pathway in her brain for coming up with an image to inform understanding.
Stunted language skill
WATCHING television can also lead to poor language skills. According to Healy, the visual nature of television blocks development of the left part of the brain that is important for learning language skills.
A recent conference of speech therapists in London revealed that television restricts and limits children's abilities to speak and understand English.
According to one therapist, "One in 5 children under the age of 5 suffers language problems because many parents use television as an automatic babysitter."
Language skills are best fostered through reading and active two-way participation in conversations and play activities, not by watching TV.
A 1994 US Department of Education report on plunging academic achievement cites excessive TV watching as one of 3 factors that account of nearly 90% of the difference in the average performance of young school children's mathematics scores.
Another study found that 6th and 12th grade California students who were heavy TV viewers scored lower on math achievement (as well as reading and written expression) tests than students who viewed little or no TV.