Rethinking Television, Video Games, and Children

How do the games we create affect the people we become?

The following was originally published in the San Clemente Sun Post.

There has been so much written and stated about children watching television and playing video games that, perhaps, even the mention of it causes us to tune out.  For example, we know that children who watch too much TV are more aggressive than other children because of repeated exposure to graphic violence and that children’s academic performance suffers because they are spending time in a passive activity rather than reading and doing math problems. Recently, I read a new study about the effects of children watching TV and playing video games and discovered not only some facts I didn’t know, but once again it raised my level of concern about children and television.

Children are averaging watching approximately 4 hours of television a day, which is second only to sleep. By the time children graduate from high school, they have watched more than 20,000 hours of television, more than they have spent in the classroom. In one study that followed children into young adulthood researchers found that exposure to violence on television at age 8 was significantly related to the likelihood of committing violent acts as adolescents and young adults.  Boys who watched the most violence on television were the most likely to commit violence later in life than those watching less television violence. In another study with preschool children, preschoolers were randomly assigned to two groups. One group watched Saturday morning cartoons with violence and the other group watched cartoons with no violence. These children were later observed interacting with their peers on the play ground and the groups watching violent cartoons kicked, choked, and pushed their playmates more than those not exposed to violent cartoons. While violent behavior in children may have many determinants, television watching seems clearly to be one.

Researchers have found that there are other consequences of too much television watching. It paints an unrealistic view of the world.  Generally, characters on television do not suffer the consequences of poor planning or decision making. At the conclusion of the 30-minute or 1-hour program, there are resolutions to complex issues that in real life may take years or never be resolved. The consequences of the violence perpetrated by the main character are glamorized and he or she may never suffer the logical consequences of their behavior. 

In terms of academic performance, children’s creativity and verbal skills may suffer more from television watching because it is a visual activity and learning language is typically enhanced by interactive activities. New technologies, such as interactive television may hold more promise in not negatively affecting children’s academic performance, but even this cannot take the place of person-to-person contact.

In another recent study, researchers found that children are reading less and not engaged as much in other activities, such as music and writing because of television and video games. Researchers have also found that children watching too much television are not eating as much healthy foods and tend to be obese. They are more unsupervised and eat junk food advertised on television.

Other researchers have found that the youngest children are now being targeted for products on DVDs and videotapes. While most of this electronic media is interactive, experts say that it cannot replace the interaction with the real world. Child development experts point out the need for children to interact with real people rather than sit passively at a television screen.

The study alluded to above that is most troubling was reported last August by a group of researchers in Japan at Tohoku University. They found that video games and television viewing only stimulate the parts of the brain associated with vision and movement, but do not enhance the development of other parts of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, which is the center for rational thinking and problem solving. On the other hand, the researchers found that children who are engaged in math, reading, and creative writing stimulate all areas of the brain including the prefrontal cortex. 

The implication of this study is frightening. Not only do television viewing and playing video games contribute to violence, they may actually damage the brain. Children are not doing as well in math and other academic subjects and are not behaving socially as well because their brains are not developing adequately because of the wrong kind of stimulation. Other researchers have found that high school and college students today need material to be presented in a variety of mediums because their brains are wired differently than the older generations. If our children can’t learn from traditional methods of teaching because their prefrontal cortexes are underdeveloped, it would seem that it is far past time when we should rethink television, video games, and children.

While television and video games are here to stay, how much children are allowed to use them can be monitored. Here are some suggestions for parents.

  • According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children younger than 2 years of age should not watch television and children over 2 should watch only 1-2 hours of educational programming a day.
  • Television and video games should not be used for baby-sitting. Instead, parents should watch with children and engage them in conversations about what they watched. Discussing with children the contents of programs on television will lessen the effects of violent and unrealistic story lines.
  • Parents should set aside activities to do with their children that stimulate the prefrontal cortex. Even board games like Scrabble and Monopoly can be helpful in stimulating all areas of the brain. 

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