Understanding TV's effects on the developing brain
By Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.
ARTICLE REPRINT • From the May 1998 AAP News, the
official news magazine of the American Academy of Pediatrics
With new shows targeted to children as young as 1 year, parents
are asking more questions about how television might be influencing
their children. Pediatricians can help young families make wise
decisions about family media consumption.
Neuroscientists have shown that environmental experiences
significantly shape the developing brain because of the plasticity
of its neuronal connectivity. Thus, repeated exposure to any
stimulus in a child's environment may forcibly impact mental and
emotional growth, either by setting up particular circuitry
("habits of mind") or by depriving the brain of other
experiences. While appropriate stimuli — close interaction with
loving caregivers; an enriched, interactive, human language
environment; engrossing hands-on play opportunities; and
age-appropriate academic stimulation — enhance the brain's
development, environments that encourage intellectual passivity and
maladaptive behavior (e.g., impulsivity, violence), or deprive the
brain of important chances to participate actively in social
relationships, creative play, reflection and complex problem-solving
may have deleterious and irrevocable consequences. In addition,
trying to plunge youngsters into academic learning, when they should
be personally investigating the three-dimensional world, risks
bypassing important aspects of development.
Potential hazards in a media culture
Negative outcomes have been observed in today's schools, which
appear to be related to too much of the wrong kind of media
exposure. An "epidemic" of attention deficit disorder,
behavioral problems, faltering academic abilities, language
difficulties (which extend to reading comprehension as well as oral
expression), and weak problem-solving skills are reported by
teachers across the United States. Of course, parents' rushed
life-styles and societal changes are partially responsible, but a
growing body of research on television viewing clearly supports its
causation role, with different children's tolerance thresholds
Too much television — particularly at ages critical for
language development and manipulative play — can impinge
negatively on young minds in several different ways including the
Higher levels of television viewing correlate with lowered
academic performance, especially reading scores. This may be
because television substitutes for reading practice, partially
because the compellingly visual nature of the stimulus blocks
development of left-hemisphere language circuitry. A young brain
manipulated by jazzy visual effects cannot divide attention to
listen carefully to language. Moreover, the "two-minute
mind" easily becomes impatient with any material requiring
depth of processing.
The nature of the stimulus may predispose some children to
attention problems. Even aside from violent or overly
stimulating sexual content, the fast-paced, attention-grabbing
"features" of children's programming (e.g., rapid zooms
and pans, flashes of color, quick movement in the peripheral visual
field, sudden loud noises) were modeled after advertising research,
which determined that this technique is the best way to engage the
brain's attention involuntarily. Such experiences deprive the child
of practice in using his own brain independently, as in games,
hobbies, social interaction, or just "fussing around." I
have talked to many parents of children diagnosed with attention
deficit disorder who found the difficulty markedly improved after
they took away television viewing privileges.
The brain's executive control system, or pre-frontal cortex,
is responsible for planning, organizing and sequencing behavior for
self-control, moral judgment and attention. These centers
develop throughout childhood and adolescence, but some research has
suggested that "mindless" television or video games may
idle this particular part of the brain and impoverish its
development. Until we know more about the interaction of
environmental stimulation and the stages of pre-frontal development,
it seems a grave error to expose children to a stimulus that may
short-change this critical system.
What can pediatricians do?
Take a media history or ask about the amount of screen time as
part of routine examinations. Depending on a child's age, you
may need to ask the child, rather than the parent, to get a
candid response. Suggest clear limits on viewing time, depending
on age. Even one hour of screen time a day is a lot for
preschoolers; one to two hours is maximum for older children.
Children in the elementary grades and older can help negotiate
reasonable rules and a plan for weekly TV viewing. Television
should be turned on to watch chosen programs, not as constant
Homework comes first and should be done without television.
Parents of infants should start thinking about setting limits
on inappropriate or excessive media use. Parents should try to
agree on a family policy, discussing how early they want to
start their child on the TV habit.
If a child shows symptoms of attention difficulty, suggest
severely curtailing or eliminating television for a trial
Adults should keep a close and critical eye on the content of
shows watched by children of different ages.
Children who have television sets in their rooms tend to watch
more television with less supervision. Suggest keeping TV sets
in a family room where parents can "tune in"
Adults can "mediate" viewing and make television a
learning experience by sitting with the child, discussing,
asking questions, and helping with interpretation of content.
Valuable learning can be gained from this medium; it is up to
adults to ensure that children's minds emerge enriched rather than
Reprinted with permission. American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP
News, May 1998. Jane Healy is an educational psychologist and author of
Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About
It (Touchstone Paper, 1991) and Your Child's Growing
Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development from Birth to
Adolescence (Doubleday, 1994).