Neural Development and Television

With the media targeting children as young as one and two years old, psychotherapists are asking more questions about how television might be influencing their clients neural development. Marriage and Family Therapists, Psychiatrists and Psychologists can help young families make informed decisions about family media consumption and the impact it has on their children.

Neurologists and Developmental Psychologist have shown time and time again that environmental experiences significantly shape the developing brain (Perry et al). Thus, repeated exposure to any stimulus in a child’s environment may forcibly impact mental and emotional growth, either by developing particular neural pathway circuitry or by depriving the brain of other important 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, inattention), or deprive the brain of crucial opportunities to participate actively in social relationships, creative play, reflection and complex problem-solving may have deleterious and irrevocable consequences. In addition, trying to plunge youngsters into academic learning, when they should be personally investigating the three-dimensional world, risks bypassing important aspects of development (AAP News 1998).

Family Therapists and clinicians at large have had tremendous success at times with apparent Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disordered children, by simply removing all television from the home for a period of approximately 2 months. Although this practice is often more difficult for the parents than the child, it can nearly remediate all symptoms in many children. Our society is increasingly turning to medication for remediation of attention and hyperactivity issues in younger and younger children. This practice can have great value for children once all other factors have been ruled out. However, in order to lower the likelihood of a family finding themselves in this situation, it makes tremendous sense to follow a few simple guidelines around television and media consumption for their children.

  • No television in the morning or before school. In the morning hours the brain is warming up for a day full of interaction, play, and learning. Allowing children to watch television in the morning is analogous to eating a Thanksgiving meal before a marathon, it simply puts the brain to sleep.
  • Limit the amount of media consumption per day. Children under the age of two should not watch ANY television at all. Children over the age of two can watch 1-2 hours of television a day. However, this media consumption should never be a substitute for interactive, cooperative, and tactile play.
  • Try to keep media consumption on a consistent schedule. For example, only allow television for kids between 3 and 4:30 in the afternoon. This will help minimize power struggles and create consistency in the child’s daily routine.

For parents finding themselves trying to reverse a family trend of consuming too much media and find their children revolting, take a look at my 2009 article Born to Push: Children and Boundaries, in order to gain a better understanding of tantrums and boundaries. The option of seeking the assistance of family therapy to support this process is always available to willing families.