Passive Brains Retain Sensations, Not Information
by Joe Camp
…there is no other experience in a child’s life that permits so much passive intake while demanding so little active outflow as the experience of watching television. According to Jane Healy, PhD, it is well documented that heavy television watching has strong negative effects on the reading skills needed for high-level comprehension. A crucial element of thinking is extrapolating from what you know and figuring out how it applies in a new situation. Kids practice that in school, but watching television requires no extrapolation, no thought. It is not the content so much as the experience itself, and the experiences missed while watching, that pose serious dangers to the actual physiological development of a child’s brain.
Studies show that there is a direct inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development: the children who viewed more television demonstrated lower language levels, regardless of the content watched. And it’s a given that language skills left undeveloped, or under-developed, can’t help but affect a child’s ability to learn in later life because our entire system of education is based upon using language skills to learn other things. Consider these statements:
“By ages three to five – the height of the brain’s critical period for cognitive and language development – estimates place television viewing time of the average child (in the United States) at twenty-eight hours a week. Add video games, gameboys, computer games and the like and the number stretches to a frightening forty hours a week. Half again more time than the child spends in school.”
“A heavy diet of vicarious viewing that replaces real sensory involvement is directly antagonistic to the most basic principles of a young child’s learning.”
“Children’s brains develop connections within and between areas depending upon the type of exercise the brains get. A growing suspicion among brain researchers is that excessive television affects the development of these connections. Intensive viewing may reduce stimulation to left-hemisphere systems critical for development of language, reading, and analytic thinking.”
“The strength and efficiency of synaptic connections (in the brain) determine the speed and power with which your brain functions. The most important news about synapses is that they are formed, strengthened, and maintained by interaction with experience.”
“One thing television does is it keeps children from reading. Reading triggers certain experiences in the brain that just don’t happen if you don’t read.”
“Many people intuitively feel that exposure in early childhood to a great deal of television creates passive learners who give up too easily. Proof is now starting to emerge.”
“There now exists a large body of research that clearly shows that children of all ability levels in Grades 4-12 have considerable difficulty in studying and linking together the concepts presented in science and social studies texts.”
“Many long-term studies show that children superior in oral language in kindergarten and the first grade are the ones who eventually excel in reading and writing in the middle grades.”
“Children in one study whose parents encouraged them to watch Sesame Street had the lowest overall vocabulary scores.”
Think about it…
…if these scholars, scientists, and researchers agree that the brain learns and develops its language centers based upon interactive usage (not upon passive input)… if kids in conversation, with parents, with teachers, being read to by adults, asking questions of storytellers, using language they learn, experimenting, and, at the proper age, reading themselves… if these are the principle ways in which the young brain develops its language center — and there is evidence that once fully developed (about mid-teen), there is very little chance to go back, to re-develop the language portion of the brain — then, at the very least, don’t we need to be about the business of limiting, if not eliminating altogether, the one thing that so negatively affects the connections in the brain that are “critical for development of language, reading, and analytic thinking.”
Researchers are now saying that the United States Government, who has demanded more educational television for kids, and organizations such as The National Council for Families and TV, and the defunct Action for Children’s Television, however well intended, are seriously misguided; that more quality “children’s” programming or more “educational” programming is, in fact, the wrong thing to do; that children should watch less, not more, regardless of how “good” it is! The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees.
If there’s any chance that generations of kids are going to learn less, do poorer in school, become less when they graduate, isn’t this a critical question for the nation? Shouldn’t we be turning off the TV until all the facts are in?? To not do so is to risk our children’s brains forever. Not to mention the recent study that definitely substantiates that both boys and girls who watch a lot of violence on television have a heightened risk of aggressive adult behavior including spouse abuse and criminal offenses, no matter how they act in childhood. Google: Kids, TV and Violence.
And what’s the downside? Seriously? think about it. What is the downside of reducing or eliminating television from your children’s daily diet? Absolutely nothing – except perhaps a reduction of quiet time for mom and/or dad. And, yes, that’s important, but not as important as your children’s brains. And recent evidence indicates that you parents shouldn’t be watching either! A new study by the American Academy of Neurology has found that a physically and intellectually active midlife with a minimum of television watching may help keep the brain tuned in in later life.
The American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends that all televisions and computers be removed from children’s rooms and that no child be permitted to see television at all before they are two years old. The group is even recommending to their member doctors that televisions be removed from reception and waiting areas and replaced with volunteers to read to kids while they wait to see the doctor.
…there is a downside for the media, of course, which is economic! So be prepared for all the posturing and positioning. When faced with the new research that could actually reduce viewership of children, perhaps substantially over time, will broadcast executives and corporate and media sponsors take a stand against the evidence (like tobacco executives?)? Will the government allow itself to be lobbied? Some say yes! There seems to be more than enough current research and anecdotal evidence to warrant serious action by parents and teachers, and more extensive research. Even a recent cover story in Time Magazine on how the brain develops and the need for physical and verbal interactivity ignored any reference to research relating to the impact of television on the brain’s development. Time/Warner, of course, is heavily embedded in television. Is it due to fear of the economic result?
This is serious stuff folks. One scientist called the U.S. a nation of child abusers because of the amount of television we permit our kids to watch. My wife, a mother of three, thought in the beginning that she could never, ever pull the plug. She needed that time when the kids were glued to the TV (she had twins six and a boy nine) to fix dinner, to get things done, to have some peace and quiet after work, and she liked to “veg out” in front of the tube when the kids were finally in bed. Today, five years later, she wonders where she ever found time for TV. And her kids don’t miss it. They read…play, create, help with dinner, play music, and read, and read, and read. And they’re all on the honor roll. And in addition to the physiological benefits of their new life, they don’t see commercials so they don’t go around all the time wishing they had everything else in the world, and beginning to develop that “never going to be happy if I’m not rich so I can buy all the things I see on TV” mentality. And we have had no problems whatsoever with dress. No bellies hanging out.
Okay, I suppose I should apologize…
…I’ve been told I can get a bit over the top on things that stir my passions… and I agree and understand that I might sound harsh, even extreme, but I’ve read enough and seen enough to firmly believe that if this writing causes even a few families to pull the plug and get back to real communication and interactive activities (and I don’t mean video games), then it will be well worth it. I personally, have not watched television in almost fourteen years and I truly (believe me, truly!) haven’t missed it. I haven’t been deprived of one stick of important news (but I haven’t been pounded for days by it either), nor am I aware of any scuttlebutt that zipped by un-noticed that would make my life better. Just being commercial-free makes it worthwhile! We’re all susceptible to a well-sold message, and I, for one, no longer care to know that there are fifty kinds of cars better than mine, knives sharper than mine, clothes that look better, stuff that smells better, and above all, knowing that, at my age, I could be as sexy as a twenty-year-old if I would only use, drink, or eat the product bleated out by some commercial. I’ve also learned that it’s better for your overall health not to turn your brain off — to “veg out” — as they say… but, rather, to divert it, actively, in some constructive, pleasurable experience. We can all name some. We’re just genetically lazy, most of us. For me, a huge relaxation is ocean voyaging on a sailboat. Almost nothing refreshes me more. But skippering a sailboat allows no time for “veging out.” I once told somebody that I’d give anything to play a musical instrument like he could. And he said, “No you wouldn’t. Or you’d be able to. It’s all choices.” Now I can. Well… maybe not like he can, but well enough to thoroughly refresh me in the pleasure of yet another non-veggie activity.
I’m often asked: do you throw out the set altogether? No, most of the families I know who have eliminated TV will occasionally rent or buy movies to watch as an entire family. Or, if they acquire a purely kids’ movie, time is allowed, but limited. Like once a weekend. But the only TV set in the house is in a common room. No sets in kids’ rooms or anywhere that they cannot be monitored by Mom or Dad. And there is no antenna, cable, or satellite. Some families I know couldn’t go that far. They kept the cable or satellite, but never allow it to be turned on except for a weekend ballgame, or a little CNN. No cartoons! I, quite frankly, don’t have that kind of self-discipline, so even though I have access for emergencies, I never turn it on, especially when kids are around. Period.
The results are amazing…
…and it won’t take long. Your kids grades will go up, virtually guaranteed. Every teacher I have ever spoken to who has taught television-deprived kids, always says they are the brightest kids in the class. There is simply nothing – think about it – nothing – on television that can’t be gotten better somewhere else, like from reading, traveling, touching, feeling, doing.
In her book Endangered Minds, Dr. Jane M. Healy sits in a classroom and agonizes over the attempts of students to understand a story and to express their thoughts. Asked about the tyrannical theme, a young girl replies, “Oh yeah, that was on Magnum last night.” At a wedding, she asked a collegiate bridesmaid about her major and was told it was communications. “Oh?” she replied, “What are you learning about?” The young woman’s response was, “Well, it’s well… we learn about, you know (hands grasping in the air for words), well, about how to communicate. It’s like the kind of thing people need to know these days … you know, like on TV and things.” I hope you want your kids to do better than that.
As expressed before, there just isn’t any downside. And, given the evidence to date, would not avoidance of knowledge and action be unconscionable? I have been asked how I can make such a plea when some of the work we have done has been for television? All I can say is that I would happily give up all past and future revenue from television to see each of you pull the plug for your children. And that’s the truth. – Joe Camp
Endangered Minds by Jane Healy, PhD
Failure to Connect by Jane Healy, PhD
The Epidemic by Robert Shaw, M.D.
The Plug-in Drug by Marie Winn
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander
1 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds
2 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds
3 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds
4 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds
5 Dr. M. Russell Harter, Endangered Minds
6 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds
7 M. Aulls, “Research into Practice”, Reading Today, 2/3/88, p.6
8 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds
9 Jane Healy, Endangered Minds, from M. Rice, et. al., Words from Sesame Street: Learning Vocabulary while Viewing, University of Kansas Press.