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Why TV is so harmful to your baby

Baby watching TV

How much TV is ok for your toddler? Increasingly science is showing us that the only TV that’s good for our small children is no TV.

A typical newborn brain weighs 333 grams. In the first two years of life the brain triples in size (to 999g at age two). Infants experience unparalleled brain growth at this time – at no other life stage does the brain grow at this rate.

This rapid growth comes not from brain cells (we are born with a lifetime supply of neurons), but from synapses – the connections between the brain cells. The growth of synapses is based on early experiences.

We have around 2 500 synapses at birth and 15 000 by three years of age. Our environments (external stimulation) shape these synapses, and even ‘prunes’ them later, cutting out those we don’t use regularly. Some studies suggest that between the ages of one and two years, the cerebral cortex adds more than two million new synapses every second!

Why TV is so harmful to your baby

Watching television stimulates only the visual and auditory areas of a baby’s precious brain, scientists say. The regions that correspond to essential functions such as understanding language, learning, thinking, memory, and social behaviour remain inactive. Those unused neural pathways are eventually dropped.

In this way, watching television literally rewires a young child’s brain.

Shortening attention spans

Research is showing us that prolonged exposure to rapidly changing pictures, in particular, during this critical window of brain development preconditions the mind to expect high levels of stimulation – and that leads to inattention later in life. TV conditions the brain to expect a reality that does not exist, said American paediatrician, researcher and parent, Dr Dimitri Christakis in a TEDx talk.

One study, published in the Journal of Paediatrics, found that for every hour of television watched by under three’s daily, the risk of attention problems at age seven increased by nearly 10 per cent. They were more likely to be easily confused, impulsive, restless or obsessive about things in their lives.

Another study found children who watched specific ‘educational’ DVDs between the ages of seven and 16 months knew fewer words and phrases than their peers. Each hour they watched per day equated to six fewer words in their vocabulary.

Following the report, Disney dropped the word ‘educational’ from its Baby Einstein marketing and offered refunds to unhappy parents in the US.

A question of academics

We know that kids who love to read do better at school. Research shows that the more TV children watch before the age of eight, the less they read after the age of eight. Of course, that’s a correlation not a causal relationship, it doesn’t prove that one causes the other, but it’s a convincing argument.

On the other hand, interactive play promotes language ability. A young child’s brain is designed to grow at its best by engaging with the physical world, and with an imaginary one, rather than consuming a passive view of the world that requires no brain activity or imagination.

“TV is the least mentally and socially demanding of all activities. Children don’t learn to talk, listen, empathise and share with a television set, this they learn from playing with parents and friends,” says educational psychologist, Lilian Lomofsky.

Reading, singing, role-play, fantasy play and creative activities require cognitive skills, and are habits that help your toddler’s brain develop as it is supposed to, stimulating all areas of the brain, enhancing her life and social skills, problem solving abilities, as well as the foundation for logic and reasoning.

In support of books

In contrast to the effects of TV, a child’s brain lights up like a pinball machine when a caregiver interacts with him by reading a story and talking about the pictures together. The natural response to reading in the child’s brain is to activate the imagination and visualise what the characters are doing – igniting a series of important cognitive functions that gives meaning to events, and grows understanding.

The other benefits of reading to your child include hearing language spoken, which lays down the foundation for his own language development. Even more important, signals are given and received when the reader responds to the baby’s expressions and actions, validating him and opening the channels of emotional bonding.

The way ahead

Several agencies and governments around the world now recommend that children under two should have no TV at all, and children between two and five be limited to one two hours of educational programming a day. This includes all types of screen time.

The US department of health now specifically cites the reduction of screen time as a health priority, aiming ‘to increase the proportion of children aged zero to two years who view no television or videos on an average weekday’.

In addition to the US, the Canadian and Australian governments urge limits on children’s screen time, and the UK may soon follow.

But, really the onus is on us as parents to safeguard our own children’s potential. If not us, then who? The window of opportunity is small; there are so many better things to do. Young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens

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