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Biology 202, Spring 2005 Second Web Papers On Serendip

Television: A Weapon of Mind Destruction?

Xuan-Shi, Lim

Although little is known about changes that occur in the brain when children watch TV, much has been written in print and on the web about the negative cognitive and behavioral outcomes associated with TV viewing. The claim that watching TV adversely impacts children's imagination is of special interest in this paper. In his poem "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," written in the early 1960s, Roald Dahl warned about the destructive effects of TV viewing: "It kills the imagination dead!" and children's "powers of thinking rust and freeze! (1)" How may TV viewing affect children's imagination? Are children who watch more TV less imaginative than those who watch little or no TV? How has imagination been defined and studied? This paper examines the relationship between TV viewing and children's imagination to evaluate whether watching TV undermines children's capacity to think imaginatively and creatively.

Johnson observed that watching TV does not require the use of imaginative thinking because the viewer passively takes in pictures on the screen (2). When children read, however, they generate their own mental images (2). Here, imaginative thinking refers to the spontaneous generation of mental images in response to incoming visual and/or auditory information. Johnson's claim merely states that watching TV does not promote imaginative thinking during the act of TV viewing itself, when compared to reading. Thus, regardless of their supposed educational value, TV programs generally leave no room for imagination because they supply abundant images to direct or dominate children's thinking. Johnson's claim seems reasonable but could TV viewing also have some benefits for children's imagination? It is not uncommon for children to "imagine" themselves as the cartoon superheroes they adore and create hypothetical scenarios related to the characters' powers during play. Therefore, the content of TV shows could stimulate a child's imagination after viewing.

While Johnson stated that the neocortex is inactive when children watch TV, she did not cite data from scientific studies (2). Interestingly, her observation that TV viewing does not promote imaginative thinking appears to be supported by a biological phenomenon that occurs when people watch TV. Researchers found that TV viewing triggers the activation of the orienting response in humans, which functions to increase the sensitivity of one's visual and auditory senses to any novel or sudden stimuli in the environment (3). When the TV is turned on, people's attention naturally diverts to the screen because it sends out a changing sequence of images often accompanied by sudden noises (3). Both adults and children would "sit and stare, and stare and sit" in front of the television as if they were hypnotized (1) because the orienting response is continually activated during TV viewing (3). Upon activation, alpha waves in the brain are blocked for a few seconds as the body rests and the alert brain becomes preoccupied with gathering more information about the source of disturbance (3); alpha waves would be recorded in the brain of an awake and relaxed person.

With their orienting response active most of the time, it is no wonder that children do not engage in imaginative thinking while they watch TV. Excessive TV viewing would also prolong the activation of a child's orienting response, thereby causing the child to experience headaches, dizziness, and tiredness (3). Consequently, children may be less likely to engage in activities that require cognitive or mental effort after watching TV. Clearly, excessive TV viewing per se does not seem to impair children's capacity for imaginative thinking by causing certain areas of the brain to atrophy from the lack of use; it simply tires the mind. Logically, TV viewing may adversely impact imaginative thinking by taking up time that could be better spent in other activities, such as reading and play, which stimulate thought processes.

Valkenburg & van der Voort (1994) concluded in their review of 17 studies that watching TV reduces creative imagination among children of a wide range of ages, most of whom were older than age 6 (4). Creative imagination is narrowly defined as "the capacity to generate many different novel or unusual ideas" (4). Experimental studies typically present a story to the children in video, print, or audio; after the presentation, children are asked several questions about the story (4). In most studies, children in the video condition gave responses that contained more elements derived from the story, and/or fewer novel or original elements, when compared to children in other conditions (4). Assuming that information shown on video was as well remembered as that presented in audio or print, there is reason to believe that children who watched the video displayed less creative imagination on this task.

Could one then extrapolate from these findings that TV images dominate children's mind, making it difficult for them to mentally put these images away while engaging in a thought process (4)? Given that it is unclear whether children's creative imagination shows a reduction on other unrelated tasks, such as story writing and divergent thinking tests, there is little reason to believe that TV viewing would lead to a decline in children's creative imagination. Also, although creativity is often associated with originality and novelty, individuals may also display creativity by drawing on elements from different sources of information to create something new. Therefore, it may not be sufficient to measure creative imagination only by comparing the number of borrowed and/or novel elements in children's responses. In reality, children probably watch TV programs that interest them in the first place. Consequently, their talk and drawings may exhibit a preoccupation with a program's plot and scenes. Should this preoccupation be construed as a child's fad or a reduction in creative imagination?

Correlational studies included in the 1994 review usually use divergent thinking tests, teacher ratings, and/or inkblot tests to measure creative imagination (4). Verbal divergent thinking tests consist of open-ended problems for which children have to generate as many solutions as possible (4). For instance, they may be asked to provide alternative uses for a common object such as rubber-band. Generally, responses are scored for the number of ideas, conceptual categories, and original ideas generated. Of 7 correlational studies, 5 studies found that children who watched more TV had lower scores on the creative imagination measure/s that were used (4). Does this suggest that TV viewing decreases children's creative imagination? As Valkenburg & van der Voort (1994) pointed out, correlational studies assumed that TV viewing and creative imagination are related in a linear fashion (4). It is probable that TV viewing diminishes creative imagination only beyond a certain threshold of viewing hours.

Taken together, these findings suggest that children's creative imagination is affected by exposure to any type of material shown on TV. Although the content of TV shows may affect whether TV viewing would positively or negatively impact creative imagination, this factor was not examined by studies included in the 1994 review. In terms of neurobiology, what does it mean to have a reduced capacity for creative imagination? Given a task such as the divergent thinking test, would children who watch little or no TV show greater overall brain activation compared with children who watch more TV or excessive TV? Would there also be significant differences in brain activity at the neocortex, as well as brain areas related to memory? Unless there is evidence to suggest that young viewers show a specific pattern of brain activity indicative of decreased creative imagination, when compared to non-viewers, there should be little cause for concern over whether TV viewing reduces creative imagination.

Clearly, TV viewing has become an integral part of modern life and almost every child grows up watching some TV. Generally, information presented on TV seems to leave a deeper impression on children's mind, which explains why they may readily draw from elements in TV presentations. However, there appears to be no conclusive evidence suggesting that TV viewing per se adversely impacts a child's ability to think imaginatively and creatively. Having said so, there is some support for the claim that TV viewing does not promote imaginative thinking. Spending many hours in front of the TV would tire the mind and displace other intellectual or social activities which would promote imaginative thinking. Therefore, children who watch excessive TV may possibly be less imaginative and creative than children whose TV viewing hours are carefully regulated by adults.


1)Michael's Most Excellent Home Page, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl

2)TV Allowance, "Strangers in Our homes: TV and Our Children's Minds" by Susan R. Johnson

3)Total Obscurity, "Television Addiction is No Mere Metaphor" by Robert Kubey and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2002), in Scientific American.

4) Valkenburg, P. M., & van der Voort, T. H. A. (1994). Influence of TV on Daydreaming and Creative Imagination: A Review of Research. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 316-339.

5)Parenting Information, "The Parent's Guide: Use TV to Your Child's Advantage" by Dorothy G. Singer, Jerome L. Singer, and Diana M. Zuckerman

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