A Risky Medium

Trouble sleeping? Hard time staying focussed? Overweight? This article in Biologist argues that all of this and more could be a result of watching too much television. The article explains that it is the medium, not the message, that is wreaking havoc on both developing and developed brains.

“Children’s television programmes increasingly demand constant attentional shifts by their viewers but do not require them to pay prolonged attentional shifts to given events. Researchers are now asking if it is possible that television’s conditioning of short attention span may be related to some children’s attentional deficits in later classroom settings and whether the increase of attention deficit disorders in school age children might be a natural reaction to our speeded-up culture — an attention deficit culture. Could it be the form, not the content, of television that is unique?”

Recent studies have hastened to assure us that television is not to blame for the increase in ADHD. An study outlined in Pediatrics found that the relationship between television viewing and ADHD symptoms was close to zero.

“The researchers randomly selected two samples of 2,500 children each from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study – Kindergarten. That study includes 22,000 youngsters who started kindergarten during the 1998-1999 school year. Information is collected from the children, parents and teachers. For the new analysis, only information from parents and teachers was included.

The researchers looked at the children’s behaviour during their first year of kindergarten and then again near the end of first grade. They included information on television exposure, any limits placed on TV viewing, parental involvement, socioeconomic status and symptoms of ADHD. They found no association between television exposure and symptoms of ADHD. They also found that parental involvement – such as the amount of time parents spent in children’s activities that didn’t involve TV – didn’t have a link to ADHD symptoms.

Stevens said it’s important to note that the children who showed ADHD symptoms hadn’t been diagnosed with ADHD. Also, she said, at least one previous study that found an association between TV and ADHD included much younger children, so it’s possible that results may be different for a child under three who watches lots of TV. That’s because the brain is much more ‘plastic’ or changeable the younger a child is, she said. So, TV viewing at two or three years of age may have more of an effect than TV viewing at five or six.

Seeking to explain why previous research found an association between television viewing and ADHD and the new study did not, Stevens said parents of hyperactive children may use TV as a babysitter more than other parents, simply because they need a break or need to capture their child’s attention while they make dinner or take a shower.”

It’s not difficult to believe that the key to understanding ADHD and more complex disorders such as Autism does not lie in television viewing alone. It seems that many people watch moderate amounts of television with little or no ill effects. In a household where siblings watch approximately the same amount of television per day, you may find one with ADHD and one without. It can be argued rather convincingly that the so-called increase in the disorder is at least partially due to an increase in diagnosing the symptoms as a disorder. At the same time, however, it must be recognized that this medium is having a profound impact on many aspects of our lives.

From Biologist: “An editorial in The American Medical Association’s Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine now asks: ‘Why is it that something that is widely recognised as being so influential and potentially dangerous has resulted in so little effective action? […]’ So it is particularly disconcerting to hear some academics urging caution in interpreting these studies and warning of the risk of over-reacting.”

Anyone who has ever witnessed an infant or toddler become utterly hypnotized by the television or who has seen a school-aged child deeply engrossed in a handheld video game has certainly felt some twinge that it may not be quite right. One of the dangers with television and young children is that it’s a passive activity that is too often substituted for truly valuable interaction. Toddlers and children who watch television, therefore, may feel that they’re having a social experience. But they’re not. This should be easily understood by adults who find themselves turning on the TV for a sense of companionship when they’re home alone.

A study by Patricia Kuhl, of the University of Washington, in Seattle, for example, has found that children aged 10 months learn sound patterns easily by playing with an adult, but learn nothing at all by watching the same adult performing the same games and exercises on a television screen.

Some research has shown that television effects the dramatic play of preschoolers, which is of special value to child development. Preschool children watch an average of 4.5 hours a day of television — more than any other age group apart from senior citizens. Based on time alone, with television minimizing the number of hours they have available for valuable play, can one assume that there is a negative impact. There have been studies that claim television has a negative impact on speech and on literacy, and still others that claim too much television can increase the chance that a child will bully others. There seems to be no question that television watching needs to be very closely monitored and limited in children. Adults are not exempt, either, as some new research finds a correlation between television and Alzheimer’s.

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