— Jane M. Healy, Ph.D, author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think And What We Can Do About It.
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
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”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A well-developed attention span can develop if we give our children mentally challenging activities on a regular basis.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.