There are amazing possibilities waiting to be unlocked in every domain of a child’s development during the pre-school years; including their physical, socio-emotional, language and intellectual development. It is therefore understandable that many parents are concerned about whether their pre-schoolers are watching too much television and wondering whether they may be watching programmes that aren’t good for them.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that children under 2 years of age not be exposed to screen time at all, while pre-schoolers should be limited to 1 hour a day.
These recommendations are based on research results that indicate that more than an hour a day may disrupt sleep, impact negatively on eye health, lead to obesity and result in possible developmental delays and concentration problems.
In this article we will be looking at the impact of television viewing on learning
Looking at the big picture, television viewing can affect early learning in 3 ways:
- Disrupting normal brain activity and development
- Playing an informative role
- Displacing other activities that are more important and valuable
- The disruptive effect
Television viewing can disrupt the normal way in which babies’ brains are wired during the most sensitive 2 years of life. But the real question here is how? By creating a sensory environment that is unreal and unnatural. Such an environment then activates – and therefore wires – developing brains in a-typical ways. Dr Dimitri Christakis is highly respected for his research on this topic. His TED Talk on the subject can be viewed on YouTube under the title “Media and Children”.
Television viewing can also disrupt brain activity in pre-schoolers when they watch cartoons that have loud sound-tracks, flashing images and rapid scene changes that are so typical of this genre.
When a team of researchers analysed the impact of a 9-minute clip of the programme Sponge Bob Square Pants on 4-year-olds, they found that the children’s brains were so overstimulated directly afterwards that their executive functioning skills were radically impaired and they struggled to follow changing instructions, solve problems and keep information in mind.
- The informative effect
On a positive note, age-appropriate educational children’s programmes can help to foster a love for learning by introducing children to interesting information and new places. Research shows that 3–5 year olds can learn new words and facts from age-appropriate television – especially if they watch a few episodes a number of times and parents intentionally use target words in everyday life to emphasise their meaning.
However, children don’t pay as much attention to a television programme as one may assume. In fact, researchers say 3–6 year olds look at the screen only 67–70% of the time.
What’s more, compared to learning in real life, children find it far more difficult to learn from screens because they need to use a technique called “fast mapping” which is very difficult for younger children. In fact, a study revealed that 3 year olds typically learn an average of only 2 out of 20 target words while watching a pre-recorded language lesson, while 5 year olds can be expected to learn around 5.
- The displacement effect
The basic premise here is that television can have a negative impact when it takes time away from doing other things that are more important and valuable from a developmental perspective. These experiences include having two-way conversations with adults, engaging in various types of play experiences, actively developing gross and fine-motor skills, having social interactions with peers, spending time in nature and with animals, listening to a parent read a children’s book, learning to be responsible by doing household chores, experiencing the bliss of self-directed daydreaming and simply being bored and ending up creating one’s own activity as a result.
Parents and children talk much less when the television is on in the background – even when nobody is actively watching
During one study, which was also led by Dr Christakis, a group of 329 children between the ages of 2 months and 4 years wore special recording devices around their necks that allowed the researchers to record everything that was said in their homes, including whether the television was switched on in the background.
The results showed that, with the television off, adults speak on average 941 words per hour. However, when the television was turned on in the background, that average dropped dramatically to only 171 words per hour. The children also spoke much less.
When one takes into account that two-way conversation between parents and children is by far the most important contributor to early language development, the compound effect of talking so much less over a long period of time can be devastatingly negative – especially in households where the television is constantly switched on.
Finding the balance
At the end of the day, its not the television that’s the problem, but the time it takes away from other activities. Therefore, limiting screen time as recommended by the WHO and ensuring children engage in other activities as mentioned above creates a good balance.
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