By Susan R. Johnson, M.D. —
This is a condensed version of a paper that was presented at the Waldorf School of San Francisco on 5/1/99 as part of a senior project. The full version can be found at thelizlibrary.org. It may be freely copied and distributed.
TV rots the senses in the head! It kills the imagination dead! It clogs and clutters up the mind! It makes a child so dull and blind. He can no longer understand a fantasy, a fairyland! His brain becomes as soft as cheese! His powers of thinking rust and freeze!”
– Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl, 1964
As a mother and a paediatrician who completed both a three-year residency in paediatrics and a three-year
subspecialty fellowship in behavioural and developmental paediatrics, I started to wonder: “What are we doing to our children’s growth and learning potential by allowing them to watch television and videos as well as spend endless hours playing computer games?”
I practiced seven years as the physician consultant at the School Health Center in San Francisco, performing comprehensive assessments on children, ages 4-12, who were having learning and behavioural difficulties in school. I saw hundreds of children who were having difficulties paying attention, focusing on their work, and performing fine and gross motor tasks. Many of these children had a poor self-image and problems relating to adults and peers. As a paediatrician, I had always discouraged television viewing, because of the often-violent nature of its content (especially cartoons) and because of all the commercials aimed at children. However, it wasn’t until the birth of my own child six years ago that I came face to face with the real impact of television. It wasn’t just the content, for I had carefully screened the programs my child watched. It was the change in my child’s behaviour (his mood, his motor movements, his play) before, during, and after watching TV that truly frightened me.
Before watching TV, he would be outside in nature, content to look at bugs, make things with sticks and rocks, and play in the water and sand. He seemed at peace with himself, his body, and his environment. When watching TV, he was so unresponsive to me and to what was happening around him, that he seemed glued to the television set. When I turned off the TV he became anxious, nervous, and irritable and usually cried (or screamed) for the TV to be turned back on. His play was erratic, his movements impulsive and uncoordinated. His play lacked his own imaginative input. Instead of creating his own play themes, he was simply re-enacting what he had just seen on TV in a very repetitive, uncreative, and stilted way.
“Could television be causing attention problems and learning difficulties in children?” What are the capacities we are losing or not even developing because of this TV habit? I then started to read, attend lectures, and ask a lot more questions.
How does a child’s brain develop and how does a child learn?
Joseph Chilton Pearce in his book, Evolution’s End, sees a child’s potential as a seed that needs to be nurtured and nourished to grow properly. If the environment doesn’t provide the necessary nurturing (and protections from over-stimulation), then certain potentials and abilities cannot be realized.
In the developing child, there is a progression of brain development from the most primitive core (action) brain, to the limbic (feeling) brain, and finally to the most advanced neocortex, or thought brain. There are critical periods for brain development when the stimulus must be present for the capacity to evolve (for example, language). For this reason, it is imperative that the growing child receives developmentally appropriate input from their environment. For example, young children who are in the process of forming their motor-sensory pathways and sense organs (the action brain) need repetitive and rhythmical experiences in movement. Children need experiences that stimulate and integrate their senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Their senses need to be protected from over-stimulation, since young children are literally sponges. Children absorb all they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch from their environment.
The left hemisphere dominates when a child reads, writes, and speaks. It specializes in analytical and sequential thinking and step-by-step logical reasoning. It analyzes the sound and meaning of language (e.g., phonic skills of matching sound to letters of the alphabet). It manages fine muscle skills and is concerned with order, routine, and details. Even though we emphasize which functions of learning are performed by which hemisphere, there is a crucial connection between the two hemispheres. Gross motor activities like jumping rope, climbing, running, and circle games, and fine motor activities like form drawing, knitting, pottery, origami, woodworking, embroidery, and bread-making are crucial and lead to more flexible manipulation of ideas and a creative imagination.
What is so harmful to the mind about watching television?
Watching television has been characterized as multi-levelled sensory deprivation. Television really only presents information to two senses: hearing and sight. In addition, the poor quality of reproduced sound presented to our hearing and the flashing, coloured, fluorescent, over-stimulating images presented to our eyes cause problems in the development and proper function of these two critical sense organs (Poplawski 1998).
Our visual system, “the ability to search out, scan, focus, and identify whatever comes in the visual field” (Buzzell 1998), is impaired by watching TV. Children watching TV do not dilate their pupils, show little to no movement of their eyes (i.e., stare at the screen), and lack the normal saccadic movements of the eyes (a jumping from one point to the next) that is critical for reading. The lack of eye movement when watching television is a problem because reading requires the eyes to continually move from left to right across the page. The weakening of eye muscles from lack of use can’t help but negatively impact the ability and effort required to read. In addition, our ability to focus and pay attention relies on this visual system. The rapid-fire change of television images, which occurs every 5 to 6 seconds in many programs and 2 to 3 seconds in commercials, does not give the higher thought brain a chance to even process the image.
Reading a book, walking in nature, or having a conversation with another human being, where one takes the time to ponder and think, are far more educational than watching TV. The television – and computer games – are replacing these invaluable experiences of human conversations, storytelling, reading books, playing “pretend” (using internal images created by the child rather than the fixed external images copied from television), and exploring nature.
What can we do to help our children’s brain develop?
Keep the television turned off as much as possible, avoiding television as much as possible for the first 12 years of your child’s life. It helps to cover the TV with a cloth or store it away in a closed cabinet or closet. When the television is on, then try to neutralize its damage. Select the programs carefully and watch TV with your child so you can talk about what you see. Keep a light on when the TV is going since that will minimize the effects of the reduced field of vision and provide a different light source for the eyes. Try to sit at least 4 feet from the television and 18 inches from the computer screen. Plan to go outside (to the park, woods, or beach) after viewing television. Read a lot of books to your children (especially ones without lots of pictures) and tell your children lots of stories. Children love to hear stories about our lives when we were little or you can make them up.
Telling our children stories helps to stimulate their internal picture making capabilities.
Nature! Nature! Nature! Nature is the greatest teacher of patience, delayed gratification, reverence, awe, and observation. The colours are spectacular and all the senses are stimulated. We only truly learn when all our senses are involved, and when the information is presented to us in such a way that our higher brain can absorb it.
Pay close attention to your senses and those of your child. Our environment is noisy and over-stimulating to the sense organs. What a child sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches is extremely important to his or her development. We need to surround our children with what is beautiful, what is good and what is true. How a child experiences the world has a tremendous influence on how the child perceives the world as a teenager and adult.
Have children use their hands, feet, and whole body performing purposeful activities. All the outdoor activities of running, jumping, climbing, and playing jump-rope help develop our children’s gross motor skills. Performing household chores, cooking, baking bread, knitting, woodworking, origami, string games, finger games, circle games, painting, drawing, and colouring help develop fine motor skills.
Finally, the future of our children and our society is in the protection and development of our children’s minds, hearts, and limbs. What we are aiming for in the thoughts of our children is best summarized in this fine verse from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the Palm of your Hand And Eternity in an Hour
Susan R. Johnson is an assistant clinical Prof of paediatrics, div. of behavioural/developmental paediatrics, UCSF /Stanford Health Care and graduate of San Francisco Waldorf Teacher Training Program of Rudolf Steiner College.