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TV and Cognitive Development

By: Miriam Vered - Updated: 28 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Television Tv Cognitive Development

Are we raising a generation of mini couch potatoes? There are those who are convinced that TV is the biggest health hazard threatening children in modern society. On the other side of the debate, the advocates of educational TV claim that the right type of broadcasting has the power to enrich children's powers of logic, reasoning and observation. In the middle there are millions of parents who feel vague guilt, yet infinite relief when employing the services of the ever present, and usually captivating babysitter.

Just How Much TV do Our Youngsters Really Watch?

The statistics are quite alarming. First of all, surveys have found that in the UK, more than half of all 3 year olds have TVs in their bedrooms. An average child reaches their six birthday with a year of television viewing under their belt. In fact, TV watching is the leading leisure activity of pretty much all British childhoods, second only to sleeping. Nursery school age children are estimated to view about 28 hours television per week, while children aged 6 to 11 watch around 24 hours per week. By the time an average teenager finishes school, he's spent 15,000 to 18,000 hours in front of the box, and about 12,000 hours in school.

In many homes, the TV is constantly on in the background, and there is a clear correlation between poverty, socio-economic problems, low parental education and high parental TV viewing time.

TV Instead of Other Activities

First of all, the simple fact that children nowadays spend so much time in front of the TV means that there is less time for other activities which are known to enhance cognitive development, like socialising and interacting with other children, creative play, and acquisition of reading and writing skills. As any parent knows, if your kid is glued to the box, he won't get his homework done.

Another obvious way that TV can harm cognition comes about through late night viewing, which simply means that the child doesn't get enough sleep, and is too sleepy to concentrate in school the next day, or, in the case of the huge numbers of 3 year olds with bedroom TVs, one can imagine whole classes of nursery children feeling the need to prop up their eyelids with matchsticks, and quite unable to focus on the finer points of ABC the next day!

Impressionable Young Minds and Brains

Children often have active fantasy lives, and can be very imaginative. Studies of child psychology show that even older children may have difficulty in distinguishing between what they see on the TV and reality. They also tend to learn by imitation, and there are worries about the suggestive power of inappropriate programming. For example, a New York study found increased rates of teenage suicide in the weeks after the broadcasting of fictional films portraying suicide. There have also been suggestions that increase exposure to TV is associated with greater incidence of Attention Deficit Disorder, and that children who have watched violent or frightening shows may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.

Can TV Have Positive Effects?

If you, like most modern parents, find that bringing up children without TV in the 21st century is well nigh impossible, then do not despair. After all, there's no way to turn back the clock - TV is clearly here to stay, and unless you plan on bringing your children up on a desert island, some degree of childhood TV exposure is inevitable. The good news is, that as far as expert opinion, and scientific studies go, there is evidence that when used appropriately, TV not only doesn't inevitably damage those developing brain cells, but can even benefit them.

Most paediatricians recommend no TV for under twos, but for children aged 2 to 5, there is evidence that high quality programmes aimed at this age group can benefit language development, reading recognition and short term memory. Children are also far more likely to benefit from appropriate and educational programmes if the adult carer watches with them and engages them in discussion about what they are watching. The carer can also then teach them the very useful life skill of knowing when to turn off. The programme ends, you press the off switch, and the child is likely to go off and play games inspired by the show.

Age Appropriate Shows

Unfortunately, despite the increasing quantity and quality of children's shows available, the concept of age appropriate watching doesn't seem to be widely recognised. A recent survey showed that EastEnders is the most watched show amongst British four year olds. It seems unlikely that exposure to the doings of Albert Square is doing much good for their cognitive development!

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