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Television and the Brain

Allison Z's picture

Television, which was first introduced to the public in the 1930s, has always been a source of contention. As television gains ever greater popularity in the home, an increasing number of researchers are becoming concerned as to the negative effects of the machine. The phrase “TV rots your brain” is one that is often repeated to children, and more and more studies are done on the brain to figure out whether or not this is true. Unfortunately recent studies show that TV does indeed damage your brain. More and more research claims that television is detrimental to development as well as brain function. In a time when children are being raised in front of the television, the issue of whether the TV actually inhibits development is increasingly important. Studies are now saying that television does just that, and can be incredibly detrimental to children. Television has been linked to the growing prevalence of Attention Deficit Disorder, hyperactivity, and delayed brain function. It appears that one can fairly well the direct correlation between television watched and developmental problems, and given these statistics one wonders why such studies are not more well known, or even heeded.

To begin to look at how television affects the development of children, one must first examine what exactly it does in the brain. Television effects adults in a similar way to children, but as adults have completed their developmental stages it is not as detrimental. When a person watches television, the main sections of the brain such as the neocortex are not active. Instead the “lower brain”(1) is accessed, the part of ones brain that is passively reactionary. Even in adults this switch can be detrimental, but in children it is even more so. Throughout the early years of childhood the neocortex is developing, and it is here that skills such as judgment and attention are developed. Research is beginning to show that watching television prevents children from exercising the neocortex, inhibiting or retarding this development.(2)

But then what about shows such as “Dora the Explorer” or “Sesame Street,” which were created specifically to help children learn and develop? These shows are helpful for children who are about four to six years old, but can indeed be detrimental to children much younger than that. As a researcher who has done several studies regarding television and the young brain, Christakis states that "Sesame Street wasn't designed for kids that young, but it's watched by kids that young because parents think if it's good for a three-year-old, it's good for a two-year-old. And parents want to believe their one-year-old is as advanced as the average three-year-old." (3) While these shows do indeed act as valuable learning tools for older children, they are not healthy for younger ones. Because the early stages of a child’s brain require interaction with the environment, the passive act of television watching severely detriments this process. Children are not able to engage with the television the way they can with the real world, and this can cause severe learning deficiencies.

Television may also be to blame for the growing number of children with Attention Deficit Disorder. Because of the quick cuts and short nature of television, children who watch TV tend to have attention disorders. In another study by Christakis, the parents of 1,345 children were surveyed as to their children’s viewing patterns and then were asked to rate their children’s behavior at age 7 on a scale very similar to the scale used to calculate ADHD. 37 percent of one year olds watched one to two hours of television, which resulted in up to a 20% increase in risk of developing attention problems by age 7. Ultimately, the results showed that for every hour of television a baby watches daily, that child has a 10% greater risk of ultimately developing attention issues. (4)

There is still much research that needs to be done on this topic, as other factors could indeed play a role in these correlations. For one, parents of hyperactive children could be more likely to distract them with television, and conversely children who are constantly put in front of the TV may feel the need to act out in order to get their parents’ attention. However the studies done so far do point to a troubling trend in child behavior and development, and if it is true that watching television before a certain point is detrimental it is important that this information be distributed. The troubling idea that television even effects the way adults’ brains function suggests that there is more to be learned on the subject, which is becoming increasingly relevant in a world where the television takes up a larger and larger space in the home.





(1) Washington Week, Student Voices: PBS

(2) TV and Our Children’s Minds

(3) TV May Harm Toddlers’ Brain Development

(4) TV May Hurt Toddler’s Attention Spans


Paul Grobstein's picture

television and the brain

Maybe "the passive act of television watching" isn't in fact so passive for everyone?