Friday, July 07, 2006

The drug of the nation?

(Warning! Mega post!)

Television. Is it any good at all? I’m not talking about rubbish shows (of which I have watched more than my fair share over the years). While I agree that dodgy productions and questionable content directed towards the lowest common denominator have very few redeeming features, I think there may be bigger issues.

I recently came across some research done at Stanford that showed that infants as young as 12 months can learn emotional reactions towards objects based upon the actions of a person on a television screen. Briefly, over a range of tests, the television displayed a woman demonstrating favourable, neutral and negative reactions towards objects. The exact same objects were then placed within reach of the infants (aged 10 months and 12 months) and their reactions towards the objects were studied. (Note: this research was first published in 2003)

The first interesting thing is that there was very little evidence that the 10 month old infants took any of it in.

The second interesting thing is that while positive and neutral reactions on the screen didn’t have much effect, the 12 month olds did appear to respond to the negative reactions of the woman on the screen and avoided contact with the “negative” objects.

Why are these things interesting? The first one is interesting because it shows just how quickly an infant’s brain develops. Between 10 and 12 months of age, the child’s brain has developed to the extent that he or she can learn response an emotional response from a video screen. In just two months your child can go from virtually ignoring the TV to actively engaging with what they see. This is at 12 months, mind you. That’s very young, in my mind.

The second thing is interesting because, like so many things in life, negative emotions appear to be the strongest.

I also came across an article that was published in American Behavioral Scientist in 2005 (full text available from this page) entitled “TV and Very Young Children”.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children under 2 years of age not be exposed to electronic screens at all (electronic screens includes TVs as well as computer screens). When you think about it, children are exposed to a high level of television, whether you mean to or not. How many times do you watch TV at night while your child is playing with their toys on the lounge room floor, or even if the TV just happens to be on in the same room? While very young infants do not appear to pay any attention to the TV (except Bugalugs it would seem), as they mature their focus on the TV will grow. Since it is already scary enough how quickly the little one grows without you noticing, it’s likely that they will start watching TV long before you are aware they are doing it.

There’s been a growth in recent years of “educational” materials aimed at infants, culminating in the recent launch of Baby First TV, a 24/7 TV cable TV channel in the US produced specifically for infants. However, is this a Good Thing™? The research I’ve linked to above shows that very young children appear to have a “video deficit”, meaning that while they may learn something from watching a screen, they will learn it faster and better if, shock horror, a real life person teaches them. This deficit is apparent up to about 3 years of age. So while really young children can mimic an emotional response on a screen, they’re going to learn things better if someone physically shows them. While some programs may aid language growth (including Blue's Clues), other programs, for example Sesame Street, may actually reduce vocabulary growth. This may largely be due to the child’s ability to comprehend what they are watching. In the defence of Sesame Street, apparently it is specifically targeted at 2 years and over, but it is interesting that infants younger than 2 years can actually have their development hindered by watching something just too advanced for them.

An outcome of the above research that disturbed me was the disruptive influence that background TV can have in day to day activities. Not only does a child learn less from a screen than from a live person but having TV on in the background (particularly adult TV – as compared to “adult” TV which I would venture shouldn’t be on when the kiddies are around anyway, although it could make the “how did I get here?” question slightly easier to answer in the short term), but background TV also disrupts both the child’s playtime and their interactions with their parents. I'm not sure if it's noise, the moving pictures, the slight distance of attention from the parent, or a combination of these factors and more, but it is a concern to me anyway. Doing something about may well be easier said than done. Watching TV is something that appears to be ingrained in our culture and it will be very hard to address in my own behaviour, yet alone Elijah's.

Of course, this is only a dodgy layman’s distillation of two bits of research, but it has given me food for thought about what’s on the TV when Bugs is around, especially as he grows older and more capable of comprehending all dem dere purty pictures. It also makes me wonder if perhaps TV as a babysitter is one reason why it would appear that almost an entire generation is having Ritalin and other dexys poured down their throats by our fine friends in the white coats.

I know it’s an incredibly over used cliché but….

…it really makes you think, doesn’t it.


anastasia_wolf said...

It's a hard one... I was determined Kira wouldn't watch any TV until after she was two, and was going great guns, but then they get to this very trying age where you just want *some peace*, and thus it begins, especially if they start to obsess over the shows. At some points, you have to weigh your ideals with the likelihood of you screaming at your child to go away ;). I choose Shrek or Nemo at that point. But also they start to ask for it, and it's like, "hrm, tantrum or Nemo?" I guess I should choose the tantrum more LOL.

It is definitely disturbing, and I think it wouldn't be such a problem if primary carers had more support in the daily grind, if we had access to communities in a way we really don't. It's not ideal, not even good, but it's reality unfortunately, and I take my hat off to mums with endless reserves of patience who manage without it. :D

smp said...

I don't view it as an absolute thing but more as an ideal to strive towards. The AAP recommendation was introduced in 1999, before they had any empirical evidence either way on TV for infants, so 2 years was originally almost an arbitrary boundary.

I'll quite easily concede that it's difficult to remove electronic screens completely from an infant's life, but at least I can try and exercise greater control over what Elijah is exposed to.

The thing I found quite disturbing was that adult television in the background (I think one of the studies used Friends - a harmless enough show if ever there was one) was enough to interrupt a child's play and interaction with their parent, even if they gave no outward indication they paying any attention at all to the TV. Now that is freaky...

anastasia_wolf said...

Yeah that is freaky... I tape any of my shows that are on while she's awake, so she can't see them. My biggest "issooe" is ads, don't want her watching them, so we resort to DVDs or ABC kids only LOL.

Still not great, but yeah it helps to be aware of these things.