Fall 1992, Volume 1, Number 2

Does TV viewing harm kids' brain development?

With suspicions mounting that heavy TV viewing produces passivity and attention disorders among children, brain scientists and communications researchers gathered Oct. 2 in Washington, D.C. to review the issue and plan future research efforts.Psychologist Jane Healy, author of Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It," opened the conference by citing an epidemic of attention-deficit disorders and diminished higher-order thinking skills as evidence that heavy TV viewing may be harming children.Healy said it was refreshing to attend a conference at which the nations schools and teachers are not being blamed for childrens academic weaknesses. Teachers are not doing that bad a job nor are the schools that much different. I beli eve this decline in skills is not the fault of teachers.Healy helped plan the conference, entitled Televison and the Preparation of the Mind for Learning: Critical Questions on the Effects of TV on the Developing Brains of Young Children.

The conference was sponsored by the Division of Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.Jane Holmes Bernstein, a researcher at Bostons Childrens Hospital, added that 20 percent of the nations students have disorders of learning and thinking . . . but consume more than 20 percent of school budgets in remedial training.The neuropsychology specialist noted the difficulty of studying how TV affects a complex system such as the rapidly developing brain interacting with the environment. TV is imbedded in a socio-cultural matrix. It may simply be filling a gap. Other cultural factors may be limiting conversation, therefore leading to diminished linguistic skills, Bernstein said.The most dramatic research presented was a se t of experiments on the developing brains of young rats by noted UC-Berkeley brain scientist Marian Cleeves Diamond. She and her colleagues compared the growth of brain tissue in rat pups in enriched environments with those in impoverished environments. Rat pups in enriched environments large, multi-family cages with a variety of toys experienced significantly more brain growth than rat pups in smaller, single-family cages with fewer stimuli.

The growth in brain tissue included blood vessels, nerve cells, dendritic branching, synaptic junctions and cerebral cortex thickness.Diamond found that allowing the deprived rat pups to observe passively the activity in the more stimulating cages yiel ded no measurable benefit in their brain development. Mere observation is not enough to bring about changes in brain growth. The animals must have physical interaction with their environment, she said.Psychologist Daniel Anderson cautioned against concl uding from research on rat pups that heavy TV viewing retards brain development in children. The University of Massachusetts researcher suggested that TV viewing may actually be more interactive than passive.He even suggested that the ability to attend other tasks such as homework while watching TV or listening to the radio may improve a childs ability to concentrate, since the extra stimulus produces a state of increased arousal.Though most conference participants seemed to view TVs harmful influence on children as self-evident, Anderson was one of a handful of contrarians seeking to provide arguments for televisions benificence. Another contrarian, Jennings Bryant of the University of Alabama, attacked criticsof Sesame Street who claimthe programs relatively fast pace clashes with the developmental needs of young children.

He said a recent study comparing editing pace and/or length of shots in TV programs found that prime-time shows such as Coach averaged between 6 and 7 seconds per shot, while Sesame Street shots averaged about 10 seconds.MTV, by contrast, averaged le ss than 3 seconds per shot.Though Bryant was able to demonstrate the more moderate pace of Sesame Street compared to prime-time programs, some participants felt the comparison missed the point. Its quite a commentary on child-rens TV when 10-second shots are considered long, said Jane Healy, following Bryants remarks. Bryant is a former consultant to the Childrens Television Workshop, producer of Sesame Street. Yale University psychologist Jerome Singer called heavy TV viewing a clear hazard to children. He and his wife and fellow researcher, Dorothy, have correlated amounts of TV viewing among children with reading comprehension scores.They found that children who watched the most TV with the least parental supervision had the lowest read ing scores. By contrast, children with low TV-viewing and high parental involvement had the highest scores.How parents mediate their childrens TV viewing is the critical factor, Singer said. Parents who mediated via discussion rather than prescription ( Thats not nice) were more effective, he said. He advised limited doses of TV with very careful parental monitoring. Psychologist Sidney Segalowitz of Canadas Brock University said the growing visual and aural power of television threatens a childs abilit y to control his or her own attentional processes.

An age-old, self-defense brain function called the orienting reflex ensures that we are genetically drawn to novelty. Segalowitz called for research to determine how pervasive is the failure to realize that ones attention has been captured?He also sp eculated that heavy TV viewing among children inhibits self-monitoring, a psychological response that helps the developing child learn how to behave in various social settings. Self-monitoring is not required when watching TV, Segalowitz said.

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