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Kill Your Television

Kill Your Television

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Muir, was brilliant. He was kind, and funny, and encouraging, and he knew how to inspire even the most stubborn of his students (like me) to really care about learning. He had this thing in the classroom called the “what-is-it” of the week. It was a random weird item we’d never seen before. We’d have to figure it out what it was and guess at the end of each week, for a prize. There was also the “where-is-it” of the week, which was usually a photo of a place we’d never seen.

These things really stirred our imaginations. He was forever having us constructing things, sculpting things, writing stories… I remember being outside in the courtyard one spring, hammering away at a birdhouse. He was untiring in his zeal for teaching, and for his students. And I worked hard for him because I respected him. Mr. Muir also had a saying that I’ll never forget. He was known to randomly proclaim it in the middle of a lesson about something completely unrelated. That saying was…

“Kill your television!”

TV and the Brain: Intellectual Passivity

Mr. Muir, it turns out, was ahead of his time. In 1998, the following article about tv and the brain was published in the AAP News, which is the official news magazine of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Neuroscientists have shown that environmental experiences significantly shape the developing brain because of the plasticity of its neuronal connectivity. Thus, repeated exposure to any stimulus in a child’s environment may forcibly impact mental and emotional growth, either by setting up particular circuitry (“habits of mind”) or by depriving the brain of other experiences. While appropriate stimuli - close interaction with loving caregivers; an enriched, interactive, human language environment; engrossing hands-on play opportunities; and age-appropriate academic stimulation - enhance the brain’s development, environments that encourage intellectual passivity and maladaptive behavior (e.g., impulsivity, violence), or deprive the brain of important chances to participate actively in social relationships, creative play, reflection and complex problem-solving may have deleterious and irrevocable consequences.

This is pretty serious stuff! The article goes on to mention that the increasing numbers of ADHD, behavior problems, language problems, and the resulting problems with reading comprehension, may be linked to the effects on school-age children of even moderate television-watching. Take a look at another disturbing quote from the article:

Higher levels of television viewing correlate with lowered academic performance, especially reading scores. This may be because television substitutes for reading practice, partially because the compellingly visual nature of the stimulus blocks development of left-hemisphere language circuitry. A young brain manipulated by jazzy visual effects cannot divide attention to listen carefully to language. Moreover, the “two-minute mind” easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing.

The article mentions a negative affect not only on reading and language, but on processing abilities, attention, memory, and even social skills and physical fitness. (In other words, Mom was right. TV rots your brain.)

TV and the Brain: Short-changing the Pre-frontal Cortex

What’s even scarier about tv and the brain, the article states, is how it affects the brain’s executive planning systems. There is evidence that the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for self-control, moral judgement, and planning, is impaired by watching television. The article says:

These [executive] centers develop throughout childhood and adolescence, but some research has suggested that “mindless” television or video games may idle this particular part of the brain and impoverish its development. Until we know more about the interaction of environmental stimulation and the stages of pre-frontal development, it seems a grave error to expose children to a stimulus that may short-change this critical system.

Whether television is truly the cause of the learning struggles that have become epidemic, or whether these learning problems are simply a symptom of a fast-paced, over-stimulating culture, we may never know. But there is evidence that limiting TV-time might prove to be, for many families, an interesting and valuable experiment.

I wonder what Mr. Muir would say now… kill your internet?

Thanks to Quotes above are from Understanding TV’s Effects on the Developing Brain by Educational Psychologist and author, Jane M. Healy, PhD.