Jewish World Review April 19, 2004/ 29 Nissan, 5764
How TV can 'rewire' brains of tiny tots
Several studies demonstrate that very
young children may be affected less by
what they are propped up to watch on
"Teletubbies" or "SpongeBob
SquarePants," oreven "Sesame Street,"
than by the programs their parents watch
with the little people playing at their feet
with squeaky toys, panda bears or
building blocks. This is truly a scary
Imagine a youngster we're talking 1-
to 3-year olds who happens to be in
the same room when his parents are
watching the reality shows. Donald Trump
could scare the diapers off any toddler.
The potty humor on "The Sopranos" might
lead infants to think they'll never outgrow
their anal years. What tyke wants to
grow up in a world as depicted by cable
news? Throwing the bowl of oatmeal at
mommy's feet is fun, and not nearly as
frightful as the noisy and raucous fights
of the pundits of "Crossfire."
While this could be considered
low-level child abuse and I exaggerate
only to make a point the inevitable
experts suggest that "second- hand
television," like second- hand smoke, may
be dangerous for your child's mental
health. But it's not necessarily content
that's at fault.
In a study of 2,600 children ages 1 to
3, researchers found that the more
television the little people watch the more
likely they are to suffer from
attention-span deficit by the age of 7.
They have trouble concentrating or paying attention to a toy or a doll for very long. Although the initial finding sounds like parents ought to keep the tots away from all television at that age a valid opinion the study was begun in the 1980s before most of the shows geared to the younger child (like "Teletubbies) were first aired, which suggests that the children were exposed to shows watched by other adults or older children. The children under 3 may not have focused on the television, but they could have been influenced by background light and sound. The medium and not the message might have been the culprit. This radical theory and it's only a theory is that fast-paced visual images can alter normal brain development.
"We know from studies of newborn rats that if you expose
them to different levels of visual stimuli . . . the architecture of
the brain looks very different," says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the lead
author for the research published in the April issue of Pediatrics
magazine. The newborn human brain develops rapidly during the
first two to three years of life, and overstimulation "can create
habits of the mind that are ultimately deleterious."
This research is preliminary and will require replication before it
becomes accepted fact, but as research it raises important
questions. Most of the criticism of children put at the mercy of
television focuses on content that could affect a child's emotional
life. The new research suggests that the "wiring" of the brain can
be affected, too. For three decades we've had an epidemic of
diagnoses for attention disorders. While research amply
demonstrates genetic components in the cause of these disorders
and drugs have become the treatment of choice, cultural critics
have been tenacious in asking whether the environment also
plays a part. Obesity and violence have also been linked to
excessive television viewing by children.
The larger the environment to explore, however, the rougher
the scientific instruments on which to draw persuasive
conclusions. It's difficult to determine whether those children with
attention disorders gravitate to watching more television, or
whether the disorder develops as the result of watching
television. Do the parents of children who watch a lot of
television interact less with their children than parents of those
who don't permit television viewing?
Five years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned
parents that allowing children under 2 to watch television could
adversely affect brain growth and social, emotional and cognitive
skills. Many families have ignored the challenge. Children between
1 and 3 watch an average of two to three hours of television a
day. Nearly one-third of all children have a television set in their
Harmful consequences can grow like weeds in an unattended
garden. Many of our children are living in that garden choked by
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