The debate continues about whether allowing young children to watch TV harms their cognitive development or not. It flared up a couple of weeks ago when a report commissioned by the Australian government recommended that children under 2 should be banned from watching TV and electronic media such as computer games. So this is about freedom, censorship, the relationship between the personal and the political, the nanny state, etc., as much as it is about child development.
An article by Patrick Barkham looks at some of the scientific and political issues involved. At the centre of everything is the extraordinary way in which the human brain develops. (I prefer the word ‘mind’ to ‘brain’, because ‘mind’ allows us to appreciate that our cognitive relationship with the world is dependent on much more than the neurological condition of the brain. But the brain certainly plays its part.) Barkham reports the findings of Dr Michael Rich, director of the influential Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital:
Humans have the most sophisticated brain on the planet because it is relatively unformed when we are born. Our brains triple in volume in the first 24 months. We build our brains ourselves, by responding to the environment around us. The biggest part of this is a process called pruning, says Rich, whereby we learn what is significant – our mother’s voice, for instance – and what is not. “TV killing off neurons and the synaptic connections that are made in order to discriminate signals from ‘noise’,” he says.
Experts in child development have found that three things optimise brain development: face-to-face interaction with parents or carers; learning to interact with or manipulate the physical world; and creative problem-solving play. Electronic screens do not provide any of this. At the most basic level, then, time spent watching TV has a displacement effect and stops children spending time on other, more valuable brain-building activities.
Scientists concede that they do not yet know precisely how TV affects the cognitive development, not just in terms of understanding the inner workings of the brain but because the way we use television and other electronic screens is changing so rapidly that we do not know how it will affect people by the time their brains stop developing in their mid-20s. But the weight of evidence about the deleterious impact of TV on child’s ability to learn is alarming…
A more recent article by Helen Rumbelow steps back and looks at the way theories of child development have changed over the last couple of generations. The 1990s was the decade in which we discovered the importance of the first 24 months, and the idea that the right stimulation could boost your child’s chances. This led to playing Mozart to the child in the womb, flashcards as soon as they popped out, and Baby Einstein videos when they could sit up. Now the tide has turned.
I’m not taking sides here – I don’t know enough, and I don’t have children, and I’ve seen plenty of happy and healthy children grow up with a bit of TV. But for all those anxious parents tortured with guilt and uncertainty, Rumbelow provides some consolation with a quote from Dr Martin Ward-Platt. The evidence, he says, is still too equivocal:
The farther you get away from deprived populations, the less TV gets watched, and the more parental controls there are, so it is hard to disentangle this stuff.
Of course, the thing that really makes the difference for a baby is interaction with a caregiver and there is nothing we can invent as a people substitute. But if a child watches some TV and is exposed to people for the rest of the time, they will do fine. What we don’t know is where the limit is, where you start to hold children back.
If there is no strong evidence either way, we think it’s much better to say we don’t know, and what’s right for you is probably the best thing for your family.