Monday, May 3, 2010

Popular Practices Examined... Part One (television)

I have been exposed to a whole new world of popular practices with babies since becoming a mother. While I have spent a lot of years in the field of early childhood, my everyday exposure and philosophies surrounded around the topics crucial to the 2-6 year old age range a majority of the time.

For many years now I have done parenting workshops on various topics, but without a doubt one of the topics I was most passionate about was television viewing and young children. Young children are defined as birth to eight years old by NAEYC.

For those who have not heard me give this workshop before (or many times before:), the research on screen viewing by young children is scary. It is not only about the content which most parents get and attempt to regulate by not showing violent shows, etc... It is also about the medium, the screen itself. The thousands of mega pixels that flash before the eyes of your children to make a picture on the screen, actually affects their brain.

For those who are not familiar with the brain, there are three components (triune brain model) that control different types of functioning.

*There is the Neo-Cortex which is responsible for higher level thinking, language, conscious thought, problem solving, sensory perception, and reasoning. It is part of the mammal brain only and really defines us as human in many ways.

*There is the Limbic System which is responsible for behavior, emotions, long term memory, and olfaction.

and then there is the:
*Reptilian Brain or R-complex which is the basic fight or flight level of the brain responsible for rage, protection, and basic survival mechanisms.

When children watch television, the screen they are viewing places them in the reptilian part of their brain where they are incapable of the the other levels of functioning. Their heart and respiratory rates increase and they are simply taking in input and analyzing it for no more than basic information. Have you ever noticed the blank stare on the faces of people watching TV? Is it any wonder people call it the idiot box?

Now I have heard many people say, "but my child learns so much from educational TV". This is not possible because higher level thought is not possible. They will be able to repeat what they heard, but the actual processing, understanding, and assimilation of that information is not happening.

Now here is the scary part, when your brain is put into reptilian functioning, it does not come out of it from 30 minutes to 3 hours! So if say, your child watch a bit of Sesame Street in the morning just before a visit to the museum or even a play date with her friend, it is likely she will not be able to take in any beneficial input or experiences due to the assault that just happened in the form of big bird.

Don't get me wrong, I think Sesame street, Mister Rogers, Lassie, even some (dare I say) Disney are decent programming, but it is just that... programming your child's brain and with a price to pay that is pretty hefty in my opinion. All of the topics Mister Rogers discusses are much better learned from life and books than from a screen.

I have spent many years spending time with children: some of which watch television, some of whom do not. It is very obvious to me the children who do even a little bit of viewing. You can see it in their creativity, in their imagination, in their play. I can give you examples that would make that reptilian brain spin.

Even the American Academy of Pediatrics says zero television viewing before the age of two which I consider to be a very liberal recommendation. They recognize the importance of infants having facial contact and the importance of language coming firsthand from another human being. As Dr. Sears puts it, "the best toy for a baby is its parent's faces." Still, programs such as babyTV, baby Einstein, and Nogin still exist.

When I was working with preschoolers, I thought TV viewing was only happening as they approached toddler and preschool years and beyond. Maybe the school had parents with a certain philosophical bias against television. However, what I am noticing as I get into the mommy world is that many people of new infants are choosing television, DVD's, and computer viewing for their babies! This really scares me. Actually, it terrifies me! Screen entertainment is a slippery, addictive slope. The more a child watches, the more they want. The more they want, the more advertising they are exposed to, and the more likely the imaginative world of fairies, gnomes, knights, and faraway lands cease to exist.

For those of you who still think you need the electronic babysitter to get anything done around the house, I promise you those shows are working against you. The begging, pleading, and whining for shows, character toys, special foods, and chemical filled bath products are just a stones throw away. Not to mention the fact that your child will be able to entertain themselves less and less.

Sure a baby requires a lot of attention and time, but as they mature, they play for longer and longer periods alone, look at books for longer and longer time frames, and are generally becoming more and more creative and independent. The television is slowing if not stopping that process dead in its tracks.

For more research and info on this topic:

-Endangered Minds: Why Children don't think-- and What We Can Do About It by Jane Healy

-FAILURE TO CONNECT: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It by Jane M. Healy

-Parenting Well in a Media Age: Keeping Our Kids Human by Gloria DeGaetano

-The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life by Marie Winn

-Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander


  1. Love this post..... This is exactly why we don't have a TV......

    Thanks so much for always sharing your knowledge..... We need to have a playdate soon...


  2. We don't have television either! I grew up without it and my husband didn't mind, so he unplugged the set and cancelled cable when we were married =)

    Anyway, totally separate aside, not to be a stalker or anything, but I was just wondering. My mother volunteers at the Huntington Gardens and she called me yesterday to tell me that she'd met someone with a bumper sticker full of breastfeeding awesome-ness and that they had a blog, etc. Anyway, she couldn't remember the actual blog URL, but she had a vague idea, so I hunted through a few of the options this morning and this one seems to be the most likely since you're in Long Beach. (I'm in the Whittier area.) So, if that woman WAS YOU, then, you know, HI! Your bumper sticker rocks! And if that woman WAS NOT YOU, then, well, your blog is cool and I'm sorry to bother you!

    Sarah @

  3. Hi Tracy, I'm not trying to change your mind or anything (nor do I presume that I ever could!)...just thought I'd throw out a different perspective there by sending this link:

    I use to be very dogmatic about restricting television and video games until I met more and more unschoolers and their children. As Noah grew older, I have found my values shifting from dogmatic restriction and avoidance of anything potentially harmful toward respecting freedom of choice and evaluating the true meaning of freedom. I really try to express what I feel is important in life by having an open dialogue with Noah about things such as television (and other things that may not be best for him) and why it's important to have balance (not sitting in front of the television all day)and more importantly, by not making television an activity our family revolves around. My husband and I rarely watch television ourselves and I feel that our own model of a balanced life sends a stronger message than saying, "NO TV!"

    I have also noticed that when I do give Noah freedom of choice when it comes to television viewing, he naturally creates his own balance. On the other hand, when I restrict television, he gets almost obsessed with it and wants it even more. He would go to friends' houses who have television and wonder why he couldn't watch it. I guess not having a television would take care of that problem, but that's just not our family and what happens when he's exposed to it elsewhere?

    It was also much easier to restrict viewing when he was younger because he didn't know what he was missing. But now that he is older and has a will of his own and views television in other people's houses, I find that the more I "let go" and show that I trust him to make his own decisions (with a little guidance and strewing from me!), he really does beautifully create his own balance.

    I am not discrediting your post in any makes perfect sense that television is not good for your brain! I am just saying that for my family, freedom and balance have become more highly valued than avoidance of any ill effects television may impose.

  4. Is there any way you can pass on the source for the actual research for the reptilian brain part? I had times when we had a TV in my childhood, and times when we didn't, and I don't feel that I had a vastly different experience of the world at those times.

    I always appreciate the perspective of people who have worked with many children. I feel fortunate to have taught elementary myself. I felt the same way you do back then!

    Since I have been presented with more information, I have realized that most of the people in my university art program LOVED pop culture and TV references. I feel confident that you can raise a creative child with TV, because I have been surrounded by creative adults who watched TV as children. And this was a very competitive school to get into, so clearly childhood TV did not keep these kids from performing in school. Not that that means there was higher level thinking involved in their high schools! In general, I am blessed to know SO many amazing, brilliant, creative people, and they more or less all had TV as kids. The biggest issue to me is whether people engage in non-passive activities as well.

    I think most adults who watch movies, or plays, or a concert, or who are reading books, are similarly rapt as a child watching TV. When my husband says something to me while I'm reading, and I don't notice, we don't call it the "idiot novel"! When you make any sort of visual experience a special event, people watch intently. I know kids who don't have TV limits, and they often are playing with something else while watching, because it isn't a special event and they know if they miss something, they can watch it again.

    My personal experience is that I was anti-TV, didn't have a TV in my 20s, and then I married a TV watcher. We do argue about how much he wants to watch sometimes, but cable with TiVo is one of the most wonderful learning tools I've ever had the fortune to use. I have learned so much from the nonfiction shows I have recorded that it has made me seriously question the anti-TV reading I've done. I don't doubt that there are some limitations to learning this way, or that the developing brain is a different issue from an older child/adult, but I haven't heard anything yet that is a total deal-breaker.

  5. So many wonderful comments, so little time.
    Of course it is possible to raise a child with TV viewing and still have a creative kid on your hands.

    Just like junk food, we indulge from time to time when we are out, but not in our own house seems to be the way we are approaching it with Elijah.

    This post is meant to be a think twice about this popular practice especially for young children, once children are over 8 years old, I think things can change.

    The reptilian brain research comes from the book I sourced at the bottom, Parenting Well in a Media Age which is hardly an anti-TV book.

  6. Wow! What a great post! Very happy to read it, and very happy not to own a television. :) Thanks!

  7. Thanks! I totally would have edited that if I had the option. I was embarrassed that I went on so. So of course I'm going to do it again. :)

    My experience as a family caregiver with a younger toddler and childcare support about once a year was that without TV, my life became impossible. I would get phone calls from doctors and insurance companies and such that would take a half hour or more, at unpredictable times. I had complicated business and medical calls I had to make with relatives that had to be done when nobody was available to watch my child. I was taking care of folks who dropped pills, who had opportunistic infections that my child needed to be kept away from. I nursed nonstop, I babycarried, I used an exersaucer, I did what I could, but ultimately I ended up being deeply grateful for educational TV. Without TV, I would have been reduced to dumping her in a playpen, walking out of the room, and closing the door so the screaming would not interrupt my call or keep my mostly deaf grandfather from hearing me.

    Finally one day I read on another site something that rang true to me: that the term "electronic babysitter" is disrespectful because minimizes the difficulty that moms face. It is shorthand for, "What kind of mom relies on technology to parent for her?--there's never an excuse for that!" My experience in my personal life, and having taught kindergarten in a very depressed area, is that life is often intensely hard for at least part of the time we have small children. Bedrest, major illness, financial emergencies, periods of having only one parent, adult traumatic events that need to be discussd during the day but we don't want our kids to be burdened with, etc. I applaud those who can manage it without TV, but I am sad to see things termed in such a way that they make people feel like they have failed if they are using TV to help their family through a hard time. For us, it isn't true that TV created a whining kid and we regret it. I don't think it's awful to have a few licensed products that aren't toxic, because they bring my child joy. We've read about 2 dozen Sesame Street books, have learned from them, and had great conversations. But even if it horrified me and I forbade it, the TV use would have still been worth it. I wish sometimes I hadn't let the genie out of the bottle so to speak, but I never doubt that it was the right thing for my child given the circumstances.

    I really appreciate your experience and your interest in sharing it to help people. I just really meant to say that having observed more real kids I know personally now that I'm a mom, the reptilian brain thing may be something that makes total sense in theory but just isn't true in practice. A friend of a 2 and 4 year old turned their TV off for a month last year and said her kids appeared exactly the same in every way, and that's my experience too. We have many no TV days. I feel like activating fight or flight center would cause kids to fight or flee, and I haven't seen anything like that. I also don't feel like as a teacher or participant in homeschool groups that I have seen any difference in engagement or comprehension or retension that could be attributed to some kids having watched TV that morning and other having not.

    I wish you a fabulous holiday season and new year.