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Is your child watching too much television?

This Poll is still active on www.thebabyexpo.co.za Click here.

Really? Is roughly one out of three parents in South Africa still under the impression that watching television helps babies to learn?

Ask any American doctor whether babies and toddlers should watch television and he will most likely tell you what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends: no television before the age of two and older children, at most, can spend one to two hours a day on educational screen based activities. This includes watching television, as well as activities on cellphones, Ipads and computers.

The Australian government recommends that children under 2 should be banned from watching TV and using electronic media such as computer games and those aged 2 to 5 should watch no more than one hour a day, as exposure to TV at an early age could “delay language development, affect concentration and lead to obesity”. France has taken a radical stand by banning all television programs for children aged three and under. Unfortunately, the South African authorities have not yet decided to take a stand. Surprisingly, neither has Britain.

Hopefully, this is going to change soon. A British psychologist, Dr. Aric Sigman, recently shook the boat with regards to this matter when a well-respected medical publication in Britain called the “Archives of Disease in Childhood”, published one of his articles. In this he references over 80 research studies proving and warning parents about the negative effects of too much screen-time on children’s physical, intellectual and social-emotional development. The studies conclude that children who “overdose’ on screen-time are generally less intelligent, less healthy, they tend to get bored easily and are more unhappy than they would otherwise have been. He urges the British authorities to take a stand. We should do the same in South Africa.

One of the most practical explanations of exactly why screen-time has a negative effect on brain development came from Dr. Miriam Stoppard in an article that was published in The Times in 2007, called “The Baby Brain-Drain”. Herein she described how television stimulates certain regions of the brain intensively, whilst totally neglecting to activate other important regions, such as those that enable a child to develop self-control, the ability to solve problems, language skills, social empathy, analytical reasoning skills and creativity.

The problem that children face, especially during the first 3 years of life, is that their brains are wired in response to experiences. In other words, “highways” consequently develop between the brain regions that are over-stimulated by television watching, whilst the neglected brain regions are basically left to lie dormant. Simply stated, too much television makes important regions of a child’s brain excessively lazy.

This is disturbing, considering that the average British child has a television in the bedroom by the age of three and many South African children own an Ipad at that age. Furthermore, according to statistics, a little Britton will have watched a year of television by the time he is only seven years old. Will that be true of your child?

What about educational games? Experiences that a child has on an Ipad, cellphone or television are so far removed from real-life that these experiences end up wiring combinations of brain regions that aren’t usually activated together in real life. At the same time, other skills, that would naturally be exercised if the child was playing a game in the real world, are neglected.

There are simply certain sensory experiences and social interactions that are fundamental to healthy brain development that an Ipad cannot provide. Furthermore, the laws of physics do not apply when a child plays a game on an Ipad. He cannot physically feel the difference between two blocks of different weights, distinguish between surface textures, explore the workings of gravity or practise the intricate details of learning to let his body parts, eyes and brain work together. Problems are solved and challenges are overcome at a pace and in ways that are totally unlike what a child will have to cope with in real life one day.

One can argue that parents can help to counteract the impact of too much screen time with an equal amount of non-screen activities – much like giving a child an apple for every candy bar he eats.

The problem with this idea is that too much screen time spoils a child’s appetite for real life – just like a child who gets to eat a candy bar whenever he feels like it will most likely not eat many apples.

Unfortunately, television not only changes the way in which a child’s brain is wired; it also has an effect on the chemical balance in the brain. Television’s fast paced scene changes and exciting audio effects stimulate and excite the brain far more than everyday life experiences do.

Consequently, the brain gets used to larger secretions of dopamine, a hormone that are typically associated with excitement and reward. Dopamine is addictive. Daily exposure causes real life to be perceived as “boring”, too slow paced and too much work. When children are addicted to the visual and auditory variety that only screen-time can offer them, their brains and personalities eventually turn out like rubber bands with their elastic limit exceeded … flat and unresponsive. 

When we know better... we do better

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