Is Your TV a T-Rex?

What?!  Say that again–how is there any likeness between a dinosaur and a television you wonder? 

In terms of brain anatomy, there is not much difference.  Really.  I won’t bother you will all the parts of the brain, but there are couple of key parts that will make you re-think plopping your kid in front of the television. 

The Low Brain. It’s the part of your brain that is in charge of  primal reflexes.  It is programmed to be quick, searching out threats like the velociraptor flying after the caveman,  and nowadays– children who creep a little too close to the edge of a steep overlook, or when you smash on the brakes anticipating a car crash.  It’s the part of your brain that is flight-fight-freeze. It was the first part of the brain that was developed in us humans–the primal reptilian brain.  It’s always on alert, it is always scanning the environment for something that might be a perceived or actual threat.  For us moms and dads, it’s working overtime when the little ones are in our  care. 

The Cerebral Cortex.  This part of the brain came a little later, evolutionarily speaking.  It is the largest portion of the brain (and is further broken down into lots of little areas that are “in charge” of certain other functions).   It’s the brainiest.  The cerebral cortex all about higher-order thinking, reasoning, creativity, language, self-awareness, all of that “good stuff” that makes us who we are.  It needs time to grow and develop through the experiences and nutrition we feed it. 

So how does this relate to television? 

Imagine this scene.  Your child is busy playing with a doll house (or cars and trucks) on the family room floor.  She’s really busy arranging the furniture, finding the people who inhabit the miniture sized mansion, she’s beginning to develop her imaginary world.  A parent walks into the room and clicks on the TV.  It is Super Bowl Sunday afterall.  Your daughter doesn’t care about football, but she does now (hold on, dads–don’t cheer just yet!).  Her peripheral vision has picked up on the  change in scenery–the lights, colors, sounds and stimulus all coming from the television.  Her system is too immature to know that those flashes of light from the TV aren’t a real threat.  Quick!  The image changes to a commercial–she looks again.  Quick!  The image changes to another commercial.  Quick!  The lights and colors on the screen change again.  She stops.  She looks.  She stops.  She looks.  She goes back to the doll house.  Here’s the mommy.  Oops–change in image.  She stops.  She looks.  Here’s the daddy.  Where’s the car?  Another change on TV.  She looks.  She throws the dolls down in frustration.  She stomps away and goes to sit in front of the TV abandoning her play, abandoning her imagination.  It’s just too hard to play when the “reptile” is sucking her in. 

The above example was gleaned from a workshop lead by Gloria DeGaetano on February 6th, 2010 entitled, “From Slow to Grow.”  Ms. DeGaetano is the  founder and CEO of The Parent Coaching Institute (PCI). 

What’s going on in there? 

Up until kids reach about 6 years old, they have no protective factors in place for over-stimulation (DeGaetano).  Their brain is still growing and developing.   There is less of that “self-regulation” piece that us grown-ups have.  In fact, the brain doesn’t reach its full size in humans until we’re around 21 or 22 years old. 

When we’re watching television, we are relaxed and pulled in, our eyes are not moving, they are staring straight ahead.  We are in “the zone.”   Active thinking?  Nope.  Higher order reasoning?  Nada.   The brain is operating in  alpha-wave mode, thus activating that reptilian brain.  The dinosaur wants more.  It craves television, it craves more screens, it craves stimulation.  And so we watch. 

Television becomes a distraction even when you think no one is paying attention.  It is a constant interruption, especially for our kids under the age of 6.   

But don’t kids learn things from TV?

Sort of.  Kids learn and retain information best when they are active learners.  To be an active learner, one’s body and eyes need to be in motion.  Humm….reading pages in a book count.  Jumping rope while saying the ABC’s count, but sitting still on the sofa, eyes glued to the screen doeesn’t really count. 

What can parents do? 

Let them watch sometimes.  When you do, turn off the television during commercials.  Ask, “what do you think will happen next?”  Where they right?  At then end of the show, ask what it was about.  Help them elaborate and expand on the topic.  When watching “Little Amadeus,” you could follow with listening a CD of real Mozart.  Draw pictures of the show with crayons, “write” a book about the show.  Talk about what they liked and didn’t like about that particular program, let them dress up like some of their favorite characters.

What Else?

  • Limit screen viewing (computers, too) to 1-2 hours/day for younger kids, 3-5 hours/day for kids over 8 years.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours/day. 
  • Replace media viewership with experiences that stimulate other senses.  Tasting (bake together), smelling (those cookies you just baked) hearing (music), moving (dance to that music), touch (my girls played for an hour in the kitchen sink “washing dishes”), balance (follow the leader, Simon Says, jump on one leg). 
  • Alternate activities.   Quiet activity (TV, coloring, reading) followed by active activity (outside play, tag, rough housing).  A child’s day works really well when they have this balance. 
  •  Model how you spend your own TV time.  
  • Turn the TV off when you are finished watching what you set out to watch.
  • Try to vary what you have on as “background noise” at home.  Try classical music, jazz, celtic, even fun kid tunes.  If you’re a news junkie, just turn the radio on to NPR. 

As a family…

  • Clarify what you want for your family when it comes to media. 
  • Determine what your family considers “healthy” viewship.
  • Determine what your family considers “media?”
  • Decide who is in charge of how and when media is used at home.

 Rarely is there an episode of  “The Bachelor” that I miss.  I don’t consider it “learning time” though.  I consider it “down time.”  And I can guarantee you, a T-rex is not trying to hunt me down.

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