The Impact of Television on Early Childhood Brain Development

by Beth Greenwood

    Brain development occurs throughout life, according to the Zero to Three website. However, critical periods, or “windows,” exist when certain kinds of development should occur. If they do not occur, the child might have problems for the rest of her life. Some of these critical windows include vital functions such as language development, attachment to parents and information processing. Television can interfere with early brain development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

    Children have a strong need for positive interactions with their parents. Conversations -- even baby talk – and interactive play provide mental stimulation that fosters the development of the baby’s brain. Television cannot provide social interaction, according to Gwen Dewar, an anthropologist and developer of the website Parenting Science. According to Dewar, television slows down the acquisition of language skills because it replaces conversational interactions between parents and children. When babies and children watch television for extended periods, it can delay language development.

    Although a direct correlation doesn't exist between television viewing and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, research reported in the April 2004 issue of “Pediatrics” found a connection between television viewing in early childhood and attention problems. The researchers looked at more than 2,000 children who had watched slightly more than one hour of television each day at age 1 or age 3. Ten percent of those children had attention problems at age 7.

    Another study reported in the July 2005 “Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine” focused on cognitive development in children who were 6 or 7 years old at the time of the study. Children in this study watched an average of 2.2 hours of television a day before ages 3 and 3.3 hours of television a day at ages 3 and 5. Researchers examined the children for reading recognition, reading comprehension and numerical memory. The children had lower than average scores in all three areas.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children under the age of 2 not watch any television. The recommendation is related to such issues as three-dimensional vision and their limited ability to make sense of the pictures on a screen. In the real world, for example, a block or a ball can be seen, touched, rolled or stacked, which engages vision, depth perception, color recognition and motor control. On television, only vision -- and two-dimensional vision at that -- comes into play. The quick changes of scenes also condition children to pay attention only for short periods and might contribute to short-term memory problems, according to the AAP.

    About the Author

    Beth Greenwood is a registered nurse and writer. She served as a columnist for the Tides Foundation's Community Clinic Voice on quality improvement and now contributes to various websites. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College and is a graduate of the California HealthCare Foundation Health Care Leadership Program.

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