Despite the fact that internet use is growing almost everywhere, in nearly all households it is the television set that dominates the living room, and many bedrooms too. On average, Australians watch about 22 hours per week, an amount that has remained fairly steady over the last few years.
The TV can be addictive, and this is not just the result of material that has been carefully calibrated to deter attempts to reach for the off button. Within 30 seconds of viewing, the brain's alpha rhythms kick in, which are associated with a relaxed state, and a heightened level of receptivity and suggestibility.
In terms of young children, there is a growing body of evidence that TV exposure is a cause for concern, and that the problems start at a very early age. For babies and toddlers, time spent in front of the screen has been found to inhibit brain development because of other opportunities that are being missed.
Most important in a young child's development are play and adult-child interactions. The drawback of the TV is that it robs children of time that could have been spent engaged in these activities. Specific stages of development occur at certain ages, and children who miss out tend to be disadvantaged from that point on. The period up to the age of three is most important, and in the case of shows such as the Teletubbies and a recent version of Sesame Street aimed at babies, the disadvantages are considered by experts to outweigh the potential educational benefits.
A young child's language skills and vocabulary are largely a function of the number of words that it hears from its parent, and time in front of the TV causes language delays. In its presence both children and their adult caregivers have a marked tendency towards saying fewer words; a 2009 population-based study in the US found that for every hour of watching, the adult spoke less than 20% of the 941 words that he or she would normally utter during this period.
Where young children are exposed to TV, they also take longer to learn to speak, and psychologist Dr. George Hollich from Purdue University has linked more noisy households in general to less advanced child language skills.
For its part, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television at all for children up to the age of two, and no more than one to two hours daily of quality programming for ages of three years old upwards where the TV can be an effective learning tool. Unfortunately these recommendations are not being followed; in the US, most babies get a dose of TV, and while this tends to make them tired, unlike toddlers they are unable to walk away when they lose interest. In about 30% of US households, the TV is always on during waking hours, and 75% of children in the under-three age group live in homes where it is broadcasting most of the time. Comparative figures for Australia are not ready available.
As children get slightly older, television watching can have an over-stimulating effect, and is linked to short attention spans and hyperactivity. Excessive viewing between the ages of two and five has been correlated with later childhood trends towards aggressive behaviour, ADHD, and poor academic achievement. US-based advocacy group LimiTV is calling for no TV until the age of five.
For children of an increasingly young age, TV habits are a cause of obesity, in more ways than one. Being glued to the set commonly encourages the eating of unhealthy snack foods, while children are also frequently exposed to targeted junk food advertising which, in Australia, is administered under a self-regulation model that has so far failed to curb the practice.
Those children who watch large quantities of TV are inevitably exposed to numerous adverts. Until around the age of eight they are unable to make moral judgements or tell the difference between adverts and regular programming, which in turn provides them with fewer defences against the messages being conveyed. In the light of these issues, child-oriented advertising is banned in Norway and Sweden, and is severely restricted in several countries including Canada and Greece.
In proportion to the number of hours spent in front of the screen, children tend to be increasingly materialistic and consumer-orientated. A study conducted by American sociologist Dr. Juliet Schor among 9-13 year olds in Boston has found that both TV watching and consumerism cause negative emotional states, mental health problems, and less concern for the environment.
As for young children who are passively exposed to adult-orientated material on the screen, this will often inhibit their play, even when they are paying little attention to it.
When children, often of a slightly older age group, do pay attention to unsuitable adult material, this can have a disturbing effect and result in behavioural problems. Violence, including cartoon violence, may later lead to anxiety, concentration problems, sleep disorders, aggression, and risk-taking behaviour. Scary faces can stay in children's minds for a long time, regardless of the context in which they appear. The latest marketing target are 'tweens' aged between 8-13 who are exposed to increasingly sexualised TV imagery, and longer hours in front of the screen has been connected to earlier sexual experiences among teenagers.
Where young children are concerned, the best solution is to follow the recommendations of psychologists, or for families to even go without the television altogether, an experience that would probably quickly lead many into a state of 'cold turkey'. However, the advantages of increased social connection, and having extra time to pursue a range of other interests may outweigh the withdrawal symptoms. Once the television has been switched off, for adults the brain will go back to its habitual beta waves that are associated with normal functioning, and in particular the capacity to think.
TV Smarter (US)
Australian Council on Children and the Media
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (US)
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).