TV and Our Children’s Minds

by Susan R. Johnson, M.D.

My son’s birth, 6 years ago, brought home to me the frightening impact of TV. Before TV, he played outside, examining bugs, making things with sticks and rocks, enjoying the water and sand. He seemed at peace with himself, his body, and his environment. Watching TV, he became unresponsive and glued to the set. When I turned it off he grew anxious, nervous and irritable. His play was erratic and unimaginative, his movements impulsive and uncoordinated.

Why is TV so harmful?

The artificial pulsed light of TV projects directly into our eyes and beyond, affecting the secretions of our neuro- endocrine system. We strain to see the fuzzy and unfocused dotted image, especially if our eyes are under 4 years old and have not fully developed visual acuity and binocularity.

Watching TV weakens the very skills needed for effective reading: the ability to search out, scan, focus, and identify whatever comes into the visual field. Pupil dilation, tracking, and saccadic movement, all critical for reading and all absent during TV viewing, are functions of the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS, gateway to the neocortex, is idle when a child watches TV, resulting in a poorly integrated lower brain which can’t properly access the higher brain.

What about "educational TV" like Sesame Street?

Jean Healy, in , wrote about "Sesame Street and the Death of Reading." Advertising agencies and many children’s shows, including Sesame Street, counter the tendency to habituate to TV with frequent new images, flashing colors, close-ups, and startling loud sounds. When TV presents sudden stimuli, the limbic brain goes into a "fight or flight" response, releasing hormones and chemicals throughout the body. Heart rate and blood flow to limb muscles increase to prepare for danger. Because this tension is not released with movement, certain programs actually put us in a state of chronic stress or anxiety. In addition, the rapid-fire change of image every few seconds, even faster in commercials and MTV, does not allow our higher brain time to process.

What’s wrong with using TV as just entertainment?

Stories on TV project emotional content that goes directly into the limbic system and the right hemisphere of the neocortex. With no time to reflect on these emotional pictures, the left hemisphere is uninvolved. Once again watching TV bypasses the analytic brain that can give meaning to what we see.

How can we help our children’s brains develop?

  1. Turn it off. Avoid TV as much as possible before age 12. Cover the TV with a cloth or store it in a closed cabinet. Select programs carefully. Watch and discuss the content with your child. Go outside to rest the eyes afterwards.
  2. Read, talk and play with your children. Stories, like conversing with another human being or playing "pretend," stimulate children’s abilities to use imagination rather than prefabricated TV images. Encourage your child to read the book before seeing a movie adaptation.
  3. Offer a "nutritious" sensory diet. Our environment is noisy and over-stimulating. What children see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is extremely important to their development. Children watching TV experience multi-leveled sensory deprivation that may stunt their brains. Brain size has been shown to decrease 20 - 30 % when a child is not touched, played with or talked to. The building blocks of later confidence and positive attitude are early multi- sensory experiences of what is beautiful, good, and true, not passive exposure to screen images.
  4. Nature! Nature! Nature! Children habituated to fast-paced action-packed TV find nature boring, because they can no longer process subtle sensory experience. Nature is the greatest teacher of patience, delayed gratification, reverence, awe and observation. It offers spectacular colors, sounds, textures, smells and tastes. We only truly learn when all our senses are enlivened, and when information is presented to us in such a way that our higher brain can absorb it.
  5. Use hands, feet and whole bodies performing purposeful activities. Running, jumping, climbing, and playing jump rope help to develop gross motor skills and myelinate pathways in the higher brain. Performing household chores, cooking, baking bread, knitting, woodworking, origami, string games, finger games, circle games, painting, drawing, and coloring help develop fine motor skills and also enhance myelination. Banish the TV to foster cognitive development in your child, and the whole family will enjoy closer relationships and more fun!

This article is exerpted, with permission, from a monograph by the same name, available from (610) 933-3635 or by email. To learn engaging activities for ages one to twelve, read Alternatives to TV Handbook by Marie McClenden.

Susan R. Johnson, M.D., is a Behavioral and Developmental Pediatrician and certified Waldorf teacher.

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 6, Number 4 - Summer, 2003]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.


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