THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE EDUCATIONALTelevision and Our Children’s Brains


We all know that too much television is not good for children. Watching hours a day turns little ones into couch potatoes, increases the chances of obesity in kids, and exposes children to images of sexuality and violence. Until last year, though, little had been said about the effects of television on children’s developing brains. Now recent studies suggest that children who watch television from a young age may develop attention disorders and aggressiveness.

Since last April, when the medical journal Pediatrics published the findings of a long-term study on children and television, the subject has received an onslaught of media and political attention. Following groups of one- and 3-year-olds at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, researchers concluded that for each hour of television viewed per day, these children had a 10 percent increased risk of developing attention problems by their seventh birthdays. Other experts, such as educational psychologist Dr. Jane Healy, explain that in young minds, frequent television watching creates brain "habits" that contribute to attention problems and aggression issues in children. Dr. Healy points out that "the child’s brain is very malleable, and anything you do repeatedly makes physical changes in the brain."

Whether or not these changes are good, Dr. Healy also points out, “depends on how actively children are processing the information they receive, how much language they are using, and their levels of social interaction.” Dr. Anita Gurian, who is senior editor of the NYU Child Study Center’s information website,, identifies two ways of receiving information: on a responding level and on a thinking level. “TV pushes the brain into the responding level, which eliminates reflection and critical thinking, whereas reading develops the thinking level, more analytical and critical skills.”

Dr. Anita Gurian, who is senior editor of the NYU Child Study Center’s information website,, identifies two ways of receiving information — on a responding level and on a thinking level. She explains: “TV pushes the brain into the responding level, which eliminates reflection and critical thinking, whereas reading develops the thinking level, more analytical and critical skills.” Dr. Gurian adds: “Television limits a child’s ability to interact with human beings. It limits a child’s ability to learn how to read people’s expressions.”

The distinction between these two levels was felt after 9/11, Dr. Gurian believes. “The footage of the towers falling kept being replayed on television. Many kids didn’t know that the towers didn’t keep falling, that the same event didn’t keep happening.” Without developed analytical and critical thinking skills, children are not always able to see the difference between what is real on television and what is not.

In addition, Dr. Gurian states: “Television limits a child’s ability to interact with human beings. It limits a child’s ability to learn how to read people’s expressions.” Small children need to be physically active, exploring the world with their bodies and their senses. Dr. Healy agrees: “It is my contention that language delays and motivation and attention issues are partially a function of too much media.” Watching television, she adds, “can draw children away from developmental activities. The media is so compelling. It’s designed to lure people away from other activities and from thinking.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that watching a lot of television contributes to obesity in children. The time spent in front of the television is time not spent playing outside and/or exercising, and children are exposed to continual advertisements for unhealthy snacks that are shown during young people’s shows. Also, according to the AAP, children who watch between three and four hours of non-educational programs daily will view 8,000 murders on television before school age. The greater threat, though, may be that many children do not have the critical thinking skills to understand that these murders are not real and that real murders have consequences. Similarly, when children view adult activities, such as sexual behavior, cigarette smoking, and alcohol use, they do not understand that this behavior has its consequences.

A search for solutions

These alarming findings have not gone unnoticed on the news, but politicians, such as Senator Hillary Clinton, have stepped in to legislate so that citizens can make informed decisions about their children’s exposure to the media. Last September, Senator Clinton announced the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA), which she introduced with Senators Joe Lieberman and Sam Brownback. CAMRA seeks to initiate a research program at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, studying the effects of electronic media on children.

The CAMRA legislation is a step in the right direction because what may be more alarming than the known statistics, according to Dr. Healy, is that the long-term effects of television watching on children’s brains are not yet fully known. “We know that when adults watch television or work on the computer, they can suffer lots of physical problems, like headaches, neck problems, carpal tunnel syndrome, and back problems.” But the effects of these activities on children, she points out, are unknown: “We need to do more research.” The CAMRA legislation purports to allow more research to be done.

Dr. Healy’s point may seem more urgent within the context of how much TV American children are watching. According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, kids in the United States, from 2 to 17 years old, on average watch TV nearly 25 hours a week. The Institute also points out that 20 percent of the programs identified as “E/I” (educational/informational) have minimal or “no educational value”.

Looking on the brighter side

Despite all of the grim statistics, some experts maintain that there are some redeeming qualities about television. Dr. Gurian claims, “There is a tremendous amount of good content on television, such as Sesame Street. TV can expand a child’s world and bring diversity into a child’s life.” Small dosages of television are not necessarily harmful, and she points out that “putting the television on in the car makes the trip more pleasurable for some parents, although the kids might miss the experience of the trip.”

Dr. Gurian adds that video programs such as “Baby Einstein” can be enriching for a child. But, she warns, “The important thing is that the parent knows what is happening. If they can, they should watch with the child and then talk about what the child is seeing, expanding the benefits of the program.”

Rosemarie Truglio, Ph.D., vice president of research and education for Sesame Street, reiterates Dr. Gurian’s advice: "An adult should watch television with the children so they can build on the educational messages in the program." This is particularly important with children under six, she says, and for older children, that content might become the subject of discussions. "By ages 6 and 7, many kids are watching adult programs, like sitcoms," she says. "To build critical thinking skills, conversation about these shows can help kids interpret what they see and also help them build moral values." For instance, if a family on a program lives in a way that is different from the child’s family, a parent can point out the differences and explain the values behind the lifestyle choices that emerge in the child’s family.

Certainly there is educational value in some television programs. Koren Manno, a second-grade teacher in Westchester, has used television and movies in her classroom curriculum (although before she shows anything, it must be approved by the school administration). Explaining why she shows these programs occasionally, Manno says, "Not all children learn the same way. Some of my kids are visual learners. When I speak, they may not hear the lesson as well as they could learn it from television, computers, or charts."

Dr. Truglio also cautions against condemning all television, noting that the Pediatrics study did not show the link between television and attention problems in children to be necessarily a causal relationship. She suggests that the kids who showed attention problems later may have had the tendencies from a young age. And in terms of television affecting aggression in children, Dr. Truglio points out that television content can affect kids because of its pacing: "If children have a predisposition toward aggression, they can get overstimulated from the pace of a program. While television can’t cause aggression, it can be a factor."

The experts’ recommendations

The AAP recommends that parents do not allow children under two years old to watch television at all, and that older children be permitted to watch only between one and two hours of television a day, restricted to educational, nonviolent content.

Dr. Truglio suggests that parents be selective in the kinds of programs their children watch: "Practice appointment viewing: look at the TV Guide and set times to watch special programs."

Experts also advise parents not to let children watch television while they are doing their homework. Nor should parents use television as a reward or its denial as a punishment, because both of these actions increase the value of television in the child’s eyes.

Dr. Healy reminds parents: “You are the boss. You need to monitor your children’s exposure to the media. Otherwise, it can be like sending your child out in a bad neighborhood.” While television has its hazards, when monitored by a caring adult, television can also be a useful, educational tool that opens children’s minds and stimulates their curiosity.

Further Reading

—Your Child’s Growing Mind by Jane Healy, Ph.D. (3rd edition, Broadway Books, 2004)

—G is for Growing: 30 Years of Research on Sesame Street & Children by Rosemarie T. Truglio, Ph.D., and Shalom M. Fisch (Erlbaum, 2001)


Cartoon Commercials: No Laughing Matter

By Jacqueline Bodnar

Watching television is something that just about all of us with small children did when we were their age. Today the majority of us allow our children to watch television too, for an average of three hours per day. On the surface we consider it as something entertaining and relatively harmless. However, on closer inspection, there are inherent problems — such as the influence of commercials on children’s eating habits, which many believe is a contributing factor in the obesity epidemic.

By the numbers

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that advertisers spend about $12 billion per year marketing to young people, and that each year the average child views approximately 40,000 television commercials. The vast majority are for unhealthy foods like snacks, candy, and soda, which ultimately persuades many children to ask for those items when making the weekly trip to the grocery store. Children are also spending billions of their own money on snacks and beverages each year.

Of concern

"They see certain messages over and over again, and they run the risk of reacting automatically rather than realizing that they can make choices that might be healthier and maybe even tastier," points out Dr. Robert Udewitz, director of Behavior Therapy of New York, in Manhattan.

The APA explains that children, especially those under the age of 8, are unable to critically comprehend the flood of advertising messages. They don’t realize that these messages exist to try to convince them to purchase something, and they are unable to distinguish which ones are false or have a bias.

What to do

There are a few things parents can do to lessen the impact that commercials have on their children’s eating habits. Especially for young children, television viewing should be limited and parents should be selective about what shows they let their children watch. Parents should encourage their children to read, play games, learn a hobby or engage in activities with family and friends. Another way to avoid commercials is to buy or rent quality videos.

"When children are a little older, parents can help them understand that advertising is created to influence their choices and sell products," says Dr. Udewitz. Taking the time to watch television with children and discuss the commercials is a great way to teach them about the purpose and reality of TV advertising.

Leading by example

Despite the allure of commercials, the family still has the biggest influence over a child. When a child is pushing to buy the latest item they saw on television, parents can exert their influence right there in the store by not making the purchase and explaining the reason for their decision.

Until the time comes that children see a barrage of commercials for fruits, vegetables and whole grains, parents will have to make leading by example a high priority. Regardless of what they see on the screen, kids will be more apt to follow what mom and dad do in the end. "I think the most important factor in influencing children’s behaviors is the model that parents set," agrees Dr. Udewitz.


As if the violence in sports weren’t enough . . .

We don’t need a study to tell us that many of the commercials shown on TV during sporting events aren’t exactly family-friendly. Many parents use the TV remote constantly to turn off offensive commercials, especially during sports broadcasts.

But a new study points out exactly how widespread the problem is, especially when it comes to violence. Approximately 1 in 5 commercials aired during televised major sporting events depict unsafe or violent behavior, according to a recent study reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Researchers found that, of all commercials depicting violence, 48 percent were movie advertisements. Commercials for television programs accounted for an additional 38 percent of ads that contained violence. The researchers also found that, during the year studied, the Super Bowl had the highest proportion of violent or unsafe commercials, and the Masters Golf Tournament had the least. In fact, the Masters Tournament was noteworthy for the complete absence of violent commercials.

Given these results — and the fact that American children view an estimated 360,000 commercials before graduating from high school — the AAP suggests parents directly limit and supervise their children's exposure to televised sports.

Golf, anyone?

— Kathy Sena



Confessions of a Former TV Addict

By Ellen Hartman

Outside, it was a beautiful summer day. The birds were singing; the sun was shining; children were splashing in the pool across the street. Inside our house, my sons were sitting on the couch, still in their pajamas, watching their fifth straight hour of the Cartoon Network.


I had always been the anti-TV warrior in our family. I hardly ever watched it. I didn't even have cable before I got married. I had always been secure in my righteousness until this revelation: My children were addicted to TV, but I was addicted to their addiction.

TV on equaled mommy off. A simple, horrifying equation. If my sons had turned the set off, we might have had to dig out the swimsuits and cross the street to the pool. They might have wanted me to take them bike riding or to the park. We might have had to go hiking or do crafts. In short, they might have wanted me to participate in their lives. I was in a co-dependent relationship with the cable provider.

How had I sunk so low?

I certainly hadn't blithely flip-flopped from my original position of no-TV-for-children to as-much-Cartoon-Network-as-they-could-cram-into-a-day. It had been a slow slither into the pit, but here we were at the bottom. We needed drastic measures.

So I cut the cable.

I went to the cable office and turned it all in — box, remote, wires, everything. We haven't paid a cable bill in 18 months. It feels great. Honest.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit we're not "screen-free". We still use our TV to watch movies. But we can't receive any channels, so the daily temptation is gone. The daily battles, daily guilt (me) over time wasting (them), the Cartoon Network — all gone!

Since our liberation, people have tried to scare me back to cable. The most common argument follows this rough outline: My children will be social outcasts, labeled granola weirdos by their peers. Unfamiliar with cultural touchstones, they will be left out of important cafeteria conversations.


True, the cable market is "saturated". In other words, so many American homes have cable or satellite services that there isn't much growth potential left. But I learned from cable industry research that there are 20 million American homes without a pay TV service. There aren't 20 million granola weirdos, are there? My kids are in a minority, but they're hardly alone.

As to the second point, if you care about having children who can hold their own in a pop culture roundtable, I suggest doing this: Allow them to exist. That's all it takes to encounter plenty of information about cultural touchstones such as Pokemon and Looney Toons. Kids who don't have TV get pop culture in the bookstore, printed on clothing, tucked into Happy Meals, and on their cereal box.

My revelation taught me that there are as many ways to be addicted to TV as there are cable stations. If you want to break your particular habit, TV-Turnoff Week might be your answer.

The TV-Turnoff Network ( runs TV-Turnoff Week each year (April 25-May 1, 2005). Go "screen free" for a week and see what it feels like. (Warning: One week is not long enough for withdrawal to abate. Stick it out longer if you want the change to last). The growing popularity of TV-Turnoff Week makes it a great time to cut your cable. Safety in numbers!

Here's one final thought for doubters. You're the boss — not the cable company. If I want cable again at any point, all I have to do is call. It's not as if I hurt the cable company's feelings, and they won't let me play again. I can go back whenever, if ever, I'm ready. The control is back in my hands.

Tips for Cutting the Cable:

• Go Cold Turkey: It's nice to think about cutting back, but especially with kids or spouses who haven't embraced the new lifestyle, cold turkey works best. Just go for it. (Remember, the cable guy will always bring the paraphernalia back. I promise).

• Confront Your Loss: Don't pretend you don't miss TV. Almost everyone who gives up their TV service misses something. Admit your feelings and take active steps to replace TV viewing. If you're a dinner 'n' TV family, play games instead. Make it purposeful. Admit that the games are corny and play anyway. Here are two of my favorites: In "2 Trues and a False", one person tells three things about their day; two are true and one is not. The others try to identify which is which. Or try "Would We Invite Them to Our House?" in which you discuss whether you'd invite a particular set of characters from a TV show to your house. What a great opportunity to discuss good choices about TV viewing without preaching.

• Let Your Emotions Out: Put a sheet of paper where your TV used to be and encourage graffiti about being TV-free. You might see some angry thoughts at first, but creativity, humor and insight will creep in.

• Calculate Your Gains: In one year without cable, we saved $660. If you don't need extra cash, put it toward a bribe for your kids. Or sock it away for a vacation or college tuition. Make a time calculator, too! Even if you only watched one hour each day, by the end of a year, you'll have "saved" more than 15 days of time!

• Embrace Your Uniqueness: Face it, most people have cable TV, and now you don't. So revel in your place on the fringes of society. Buy a Volkswagen van. Get a piercing. Convert your friends and family. (You'll be amazed how many times you "manage" to drop the fact that you're TV-free into conversations with your child's teacher!) At the very least, stop by and pick up a souvenir.