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