Sunday, April 18, 2004

The culture wars are fierce, with firefights between right and left, conservative and liberal, traditional and postmodern. But the struggle is also generational, between parents and children. We’re not talking teenagers and parents, but tiny tots arrayed against their moms and dads.

Several studies demonstrate that very young children may be affected less by what they are propped up to watch on “Teletubbies” or “SpongeBob SquarePants,” oreven “Sesame Street,” than by the programs their parents watch with the little people playing at their feet with squeaky toys, panda bears or building blocks. This is truly a scary thought.

Imagine a youngster — we’re talking 1- to 3-year olds — who happens to be in the same room when his parents are watching the reality shows. Donald Trump could scare the diapers off any toddler. The potty humor on “The Sopranos” might lead infants to think they’ll never outgrow their anal years. What tyke wants to grow up in a world as depicted by cable news? Throwing the bowl of oatmeal at mommy’s feet is fun, and not nearly as frightful as the noisy and raucous fights of the pundits of “Crossfire.”

While this could be considered low-level child abuse — and I exaggerate only to make a point — the inevitable experts suggest that “second- hand television,” like second- hand smoke, may be dangerous for your child’s mental health. But it’s not necessarily content that’s at fault.

In a study of 2,600 children ages 1 to 3, researchers found that the more television the little people watch the more likely they are to suffer from attention-span deficit by the age of 7. They have trouble concentrating or paying attention to a toy or a doll for very long. Although the initial finding sounds like parents ought to keep the tots away from all television at that age — a valid opinion — the study was begun in the 1980s before most of the shows geared to the younger child (like “Teletubbies) were first aired, which suggests that the children were exposed to shows watched by other adults or older children. The children under 3 may not have focused on the television, but they could have been influenced by background light and sound. The medium and not the message might have been the culprit. This radical theory — and it’s only a theory — is that fast-paced visual images can alter normal brain development.

“We know from studies of newborn rats that if you expose them to different levels of visual stimuli … the architecture of the brain looks very different,” says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, the lead author for the research published in the April issue of Pediatrics magazine. The newborn human brain develops rapidly during the first two to three years of life, and overstimulation “can create habits of the mind that are ultimately deleterious.”

This research is preliminary and will require replication before it becomes accepted fact, but as research it raises important questions. Most of the criticism of children put at the mercy of television focuses on content that could affect a child’s emotional life. The new research suggests that the “wiring” of the brain can be affected, too. For three decades we’ve had an epidemic of diagnoses for attention disorders. While research amply demonstrates genetic components in the cause of these disorders and drugs have become the treatment of choice, cultural critics have been tenacious in asking whether the environment also plays a part. Obesity and violence have also been linked to excessive television viewing by children.

The larger the environment to explore, however, the rougher the scientific instruments on which to draw persuasive conclusions. It’s difficult to determine whether those children with attention disorders gravitate to watching more television, or whether the disorder develops as the result of watching television. Do the parents of children who watch a lot of television interact less with their children than parents of those who don’t permit television viewing?

Five years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned parents that allowing children under 2 to watch television could adversely affect brain growth and social, emotional and cognitive skills. Many families have ignored the challenge. Children between 1 and 3 watch an average of two to three hours of television a day. Nearly one-third of all children have a television set in their bedrooms.

Harmful consequences can grow like weeds in an unattended garden. Many of our children are living in that garden choked by weeds.

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