Thoughtful Parenting: How TV affects young children
December 4, 2012
While many of us are excited for the long-awaited snow, for many parents of young children, the doldrums of winter mean the never-ending search for matching mittens, ski socks and hats to get the little ones outside for fresh air and playtime. The warm couch, hot chocolate and a little TV time typically sound much more appealing.
Well, if your little one seems inattentive, demanding, anxious and downright bratty, the TV may be somewhat to blame. According to research, the harmful effects of television viewing include difficulties with attention, aggression, performance in school and obesity, as well as requests for advertised foods and cultivation of materialistic values.
Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children older than 2 watch no more than two hours of television each day, a recent study shows that even a short period of time watching the wrong kind of programing can have detrimental effects.
A group of 4-year-old children was the subject of a study published in the medical journal Pediatrics in September 2011. These 60 children randomly were assigned into three groups: one group watched "SpongeBob Square Pants," the second group watched the slower-paced "Caillou" and the third group was told to draw. They watched or drew for nine minutes, and then they took mental function tests. The kids who watched "SpongeBob" did significantly worse on the tests than the other two groups.
The study showed that even short-term exposure to this fast-paced, over-stimulating television can cause measurable learning deficits. Common sense tells us that more exposure is likely to cause longer-lasting problems.
For young children, time spent watching TV affects the way their brains are developing. Children need adequate time with caregivers, time for creative play and opportunities to interact with peers in order to develop the higher-level thinking areas of the brain. Time spent in front of the TV stimulates the areas of the brain related to the stress response, creating a more reactive, impulsive and inattentive child.
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Here are a few things to keep in mind when the TV temptation creeps in:
■ Do a TV cleanse. Unplug the cable for a week and see what it feels like. Replacing TV time with a little Pandora can change the entire feel of your house. Your kids will get along much better, too.
■ Not all screen time is equal. Be mindful of what your kids are watching. If there is no educational value, if it isn't on PBS (for children younger then 6) and if it gives you a headache, chances are your kids should not be watching it.
■ If they are going to watch, watch with them. Studies show that when parents watch television with their children and reinforce educational aspects of the shows, it improves the quality of the learning experience for the child.
■ Keep the TV out of their bedrooms. Children with TVs in their bedrooms are 1.3 times more likely to be overweight, and it becomes much more difficult to monitor what they watch. Keep all screen media (TVs and computers) in a central living area.
I'm the first to admit that there are days when nothing sounds better than to curl up on my couch in front of a movie, but it is important to be intentional about the role TV plays in your home. Block certain channels, watch together or eliminate your TV. You might be amazed by the creativity that emerges on the brink of boredom.
Kristen Race, Ph.D., is the founder of Mindful Life, an organization dedicated to providing mindful solutions to help families become more resilient to the stress in their lives. She has been a member of the First Impressions executive committee for the past five years.