Screens deny time for development

TV: What are the effects of children watching a lot of TV?
TV: What are the effects of children watching a lot of TV?

The recent column on screen viewing and its effects on the very young mind led a reader to remind me of earlier research undertaken in New Zealand on the detrimental effects of too much television viewing, something I had written about previously.

This was the research associated with a group of 1037 people born in Dunedin in 1972 and 1973. One of the key findings of that particular study was that youngsters who watch more than 2-half hours of television a day are less likely to go to university and gain a qualification there.

Another longitudinal study on the effects of the introduction of television on the children of the island of St Helena had some interesting conclusions. After five years, television hadn't adversely affected children's behaviour to any great extent at all, despite the anti-social behaviours, violence and differing moral values they had been exposed to.

And the reason? To quote one of the participants, "because everyone watches you so you've just got to behave". Adults were still around supervising both the television viewing and their activities in general.

While the Dunedin research was looking at television's effect on the brain rather than as a cause of anti-social behaviour, aren't the underlying values the same in both cases?

In the end it's about community and parental expectation, supervision and involvement. If you have hopes that your children will make their way in the world to the best of their abilities, you probably won't let television be their baby-sitter, constant companion and chief leisure activity. There are enough studies that show that, left with the remote control, children can spend more time sitting viewing a screen than any other activity including interacting with family.

There was an old catchcry about the educational value of television. Well, there is now plenty of evidence to suggest that no baby's or toddler's educational development has ever been stunted by the lack of television or other screen viewing. It is the reverse that is more likely.

Apart from the parental involvement aspect, or lack of it, Dr Bob Hancox, deputy director of the Dunedin research unit at the time, offered the suggestion that the problem isn't what the youngsters are watching, but what they are not doing while they're watching.

The hours for creative and imaginative play are significantly reduced. Children aren't reading, they aren't learning social interactive skills and they aren't being physically active and developing co-ordination and other physical skills associated with brain development.

We must also remember that, while the Dunedin study was based on viewing patterns in the 1970s and 1980s, as noted last week there are now many more screen-viewing options available to youngsters that need parental management.

© Ian Munro 2012. All rights reserved.

The Timaru Herald