Impact of Television on
Child Brain Development
chillibreeze writer — Shurobi Hindocha
The human brain continues to be an enigma. For many decades, researchers have toiled hard to understand as to why the human species is the only one which is born with a foetal brain. It is indeed no less than an evolutionary miracle that the brain in fact triples in volume during the first two years of a child’s life. Evidently there is something magical happening in the brain. The brain could be visualized as a massive and unending network of neural pathways, made up of ‘neurons’ or brain cells as we commonly know them. It is said that there are up to ten times the number of neurons in the developing brain as there are the number of stars in the galaxy! Healthy brain development occurs through continual interaction of these neurons, at all-time firing ‘synapses’ or brain connections almost at the rate of 700 synapses per second. These synaptic connections essentially lay the foundation of all fundamental learning and development in a child’s life.
Having established the significance of these synaptic connections in early childhood years, it really seems disastrous that a simple activity of watching an hour or two of ‘harmless television’ could in fact alter neural pathways forever and adversely affect brain development leading to severe disorders like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), infantile insomnia, language and other developmental delays, obesity and aggressive and regressive behaviour patterns in children.
So how do synaptic connections get established?
Children in the age group of birth to five are said to be in the motor sensory phase of development; they are trying to make sense of the various aspects of the world by means of sensory stimuli available around them. Sight, touch, tastes and smells, handling objects, stacking blocks, pouring, washing, bending and moulding, exploring, running, talking aloud and being spoken to, social interaction and imitation are few of the many ways by which children are learning to decode their environment and establishing movement and behaviour patterns that will enable them to become complete individuals eventually. Children learn to apply logic, arrive at solutions, find creative and alternative options for any given problem, and express emotions and opinion related to contextual situations only through engaging and positive interaction with the environment and the people therein.
The brain synapses formed through such experiences help in development of the logical, detail and structure oriented, problem solving, and language enthused Left Brain, as also the intuitive, emotional, spontaneous, creative and macro enthused Right Brain. However, research has it that when the television comes on, the rays of the monitor releases hormones like endorphins and low level ‘alpha brain waves’ which correlate to drug usage and states of induced hypnosis. Television essentially switches off the left brain activity completely; consequentially the right brain, which is incapacitated to deal with logical reasoning, experiences stress and also gets evidently cut off. The bright lights and colours, swift pans, distracting flashes and zooms which are an integral part of most video content made for children awake the ‘orienting response’ in the brain, which is activated only in ‘fight or flight’ situations. Thus the only part of the brain that is alert when a child is watching TV is the part which renowned psychoanalyst Freud relates to the most basic primordial instincts of man.
Fundamental human functions
It has been proved that high level gamma waves that develop the ‘grey matter’ in the brain, are released only when individuals are involved in executing the most fundamental human functions like language, reasoning and movement, whether it is through social interaction, reading story books or ‘being read to’, writing essays, drawing or sculpting, playing a musical instrument or dancing. When children are propped in front of the TV, they have neither contextual background nor appropriate responses to their questions or remarks. Even the so called ‘educational videos’ do not have any scientific research backup to prove that they in any way help early literacy development. TV robs children of the special bonding time that they ought to share with parents and an average child learns 8 to 10 fewer words as compared to children who spend time talking with their caregivers.
The constant noise of the TV in the background also mutes the ‘conscious inner voice’ that only humans use while they are reading, going over a thought or are problem solving. ‘Sequential thought building’ which is so important for progress in every field has its root cut off even before it can hope to be manifested.
Impact on children
A young child’s brain and visual/auditory sense cannot cope with dramatic shifts in contexts, scenes and time frames and loses focus every few seconds; as a result children exposed to more than an hour of screen time daily eventually develop ADHD and other learning difficulties by the age of seven. Memory retention also declines as the brain is constantly shifting focus and remembers only those incidents which have had most impact from the pleasure point of view. Thus retention of academic concepts conveniently gets replaced by recent or more impactful TV content.
It would be redundant to state that TV has a direct connection to childhood and adult obesity. Young children who cultivate the habit of watching TV during meal time also get habituated to snacking in front of the TV as they grow. Advertisements that promote junk food gradually lead the child into obesity and eating disorders. If one does observe the pattern, one could hardly find commercials on air that promote healthy food habits.
Another concern TV viewing raises is that violence in ‘reel life’ makes children insensitive to violence in ‘real life’. Most movies promote the idea that the protagonist has the moral right to hurt and kill, which in real life is a culpable offence. Aggressive and regressive behaviour patterns seem to be considered normal to a growing child who watches 2 to 3 hours of TV daily and would have witnessed about 30,000 murders and violent attempts by the time he has reach adulthood.
These figures and findings are scary to any parent who has until now ‘for the good of the child’ regarded TV as a beneficial tool. However, the future lies in the hands of well informed and positively educated parents who can deal with TV viewing from a developmental perspective. First off, it is important that growing children be educated about the unrealistic portrayal of life that TV offers. Secondly, Parents who help children learn to budget TV time and balance other important activities like studying, free play, family bonding time, meal time etc. can be sure that TV viewing functions only as an entertainment period and not as the most sought after phase in a day’s work. Content appropriateness must be complimented with a parent’s suitable explanations and resourcefulness if TV must become a developmental tool.
The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends absolutely ‘no screen time’ for children under the age of two years and less than two hours for children above three. The young and dazzling infant minds who will take charge of the future world are building magical neural pathways every second. The continuously changing ‘brain plasticity’ is going to define the strength of the gen next. Clearly, such critical phases of development cannot be overlooked for the sake of mere pleasure and entertainment.
In the words of the AAP, ‘the only right thing to do with the TV is to ‘TURN IT OFF!’