A hundred years ago, American families gathered around the hearth in the evenings to share warmth and conversation. As they talked, they gestured with animation and looked one another in the eye. They reminisced, waxed philosophical, recounted family history, and shared dreams.
Later, the radio replaced the hearth as the focal point of family activity in the evenings. Where once the family entertained itself, now the wireless did the entertaining. But people still sat facing one another, sharing reactions to what they heard. And when the program was over or the station went off the air, they turned off the radio and talked about what they'd heard.
In the 1950s, television replaced radio and everything changed. This new medium required that people look at the screen instead of one another. The family circle became the family row with everyone lined up staring straight ahead, mesmerized by the incessant flicker.
By the time the average American child enters first grade, he or she has watched more than 5,000 hours of television, and that doesn't include any TV watched during the first two years of life.
During those first six years of life, your child is learning how to learn. This learning takes place through hands-on activity, which means that the more active a child is, the better he or she will do in school.
But television induces passivity. A child watching television is doing nothing but staring at images that are changing every few seconds. The more television a preschool child watches, the more at-risk he or she is for later learning problems, regardless of intelligence.
A child watching television doesn't attend to any one image for longer than a few seconds. Multiply that over 5,000 hours, and you have a child who has difficulty paying attention to anything that doesn't flicker -- like a teacher or a book or a page of work.
The conviction that excessive TV viewing can turn brains and bodies to mush is backed up by educators who claim TV viewing stifles creativity, reflection, and imagination. Electronic media can be overwhelmingly alluring to young children, says educational psychologist Jane M. Healy, author of the book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It (Simon & Schuster, 1999). "TV can deny them time and a deep involvement in the natural activities of childhood. Kids have less opportunity to learn, think, reflect, play, control thinking and behavior, use imaginations, solve problems, socialize, and fool around with things," says Healy.
Healy also explains TV's negative impact on brain development: "Using language," she says, "helps the brain grow and evolve. You don't really use language while watching TV. You hear language, but even then you are not entirely hearing it because visual stimuli are much stronger."
By age 16, the average child will have watched 16,000 hours of TV, versus 12,000 hours spent in school. There is no replacing developmental time once it is lost.
The only way to avoid TV's negative impact is not to watch it -- or to watch less. As a general rule, children should spend no more than five hours a week in front of television. After five hours, studies have found that grades begin to go down, and the desire to read is reduced.
What can happen when we turn off the TV? Healy says the only way to find out is to try. Not forever, necessarily. "I'm pragmatic about this," says Healy. "There are people who do not own a TV (about 2 percent of the population in the United States). But I have raised children and have grandchildren, and I would not choose to go without a TV."
Here are some tips on how to stop or reduce your TV viewing:
Ideally, preschool children should not watch television. It wastes precious developmental time. If that seems too radical, let your preschooler watch no more than 30 minutes a day. But also spend at least that much time reading to your kids.
The only program routinely recommended for preschoolers, and the recommendation is marginal, is "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." Rogers maintains a low-key, easygoing pace that helps the young child pay attention. "Sesame Street" also is popular with many pre-school educators.
Though parents often use TV as a baby-sitter, there are tradeoffs. The more a child watches television, the more the child becomes dependent on television as a source of occupation. To break free of this vicious cycle, you must shut the television off and keep it off. Free of distraction, the child's imagination, creativity, and resourcefulness will quickly emerge.
For the young school-aged child, the only way to keep television at a minimum is to preselect a few programs and let the child watch them regularly. Avoid the "Let's see what's on television" method. Random watching leads to over-watching.
Kids who can read can benefit from watching programs that stimulate the desire to head for the library to learn more. This includes documentaries and specials on culture and science. But, remember that regardless of the programs being watched, the total for your child should be no more than five hours a week.