This month, in the Parent/Child Program my daughter and I attend twice a week, we are studying the topic of media and its role in our children’s lives. My daughter’s teacher provided us with an article by Susan R. Johnson, M.D. entitled “Strangers in Our Homes: TV and Our Children’s Minds.” This article provided me with a better understanding of how the brain works and why exposure to television is harmful to young children.
I have to admit, I do allow my daughter to watch some TV. She watches about 30 minutes of “The Today Show” alongside me as we get ready in the mornings. As cute as it is that she waves back at the crowds in NY when she watches “The Today Show,” I’m realizing that we probably don’t need to have the TV on at all. (Therefore, it’s up to me to wake up well before her so I can get ready with the TV on so that I can get my fill of news for the day.) In addition, I let her watch an episode of “Sesame Street” a few days of the week. However, reading the articles my daughter’s teacher has provided us with has made me rethink the amount of TV she watches. In fact, I’ve even turned off “Sesame Street” this week, which I usually let her watch while I cooked dinner. I’m scaling back because I am beginning to truly understand why television is harmful to children. (The AAP’s statement on media consumption before two didn’t resonate with me as much as this article did since it explained why children need that human interaction, which my daughter does get lots of, rather than the screen time.)
There was a portion of Dr. Johnson’s article that made the literacy specialist in me take note. She wrote:
Our visual system, “the ability to search out, scan, focus, and identify whatever comes in the visual field” (Buzzell 1998), is impaired by watching TV. These visual skills are also the ones that need to be developed for effective reading. Children watching TV do not dilate their pupils, show little to no movement of their eyes (i.e., stare at the screen), and lack the normal saccadic movements of the eyes (a jumping from one line of print to the next) that is critical for reading. The lack of eye movement when watching television is a problem because reading requires the eyes to continually move from left to right across the page. The weakening of eye muscles from lack of use can’t help but negatively impact the ability and effort required to read. In addition, our ability to focus and pay attention relies on this visual system. Pupil dilation, tracking and following are all part of the reticular activating system. The RAS is the gateway to the right and left hemispheres. It determines what we pay attention to and is related to the child’s ability to concentrate and focus. The RAS is not operating well when a child watches television. A poorly integrated lower brain can’t properly access the higher brain (Johnson, 1999, 5).
If I want my daughter to be a successful reader, then I have to do more than model positive reading behaviors and read her stories. I have come to realize that I must limit the amount of time she spends in front of the TV. While I don’t think I’m going to go cold turkey on TV with her, I now know that I am doing her more harm than good by having it on.