One expert’s opinion: The influence of visual electronic media on child development

stock-photo-1465891-study-kidMany studies have shown that visual electronic media (VEM) including television, videos, and computer and video games influence children’s behavior, writes Mary G. Burke, M.D., family psychiatrist. The strongest links are between media exposure and violence. Media overexposure has also been linked to obesity. Burke reports that some of the mos persuasive studies show that decreasing exposure to VEM decreases aggression in school-age boys.

Use of VEM by children is increasing. Currently, one in six two-to-three-year-olds has a television in his or her bedroom. The average preschooler in the U.S. spends more than four hours a day in front of a screen. The average American child watches up to 40 hours a
week of visual media.

Increasing numbers of child development professionals believe that overexposure to VEM leads to behavioral deterioration in young and school-age children. Burke describes one case from many in her own practice in which psychiatric symptoms
were either caused by, or exacerbated by, media overexposure.

Charles is a six-year-old child who was referred by his school for severe, apparently impulsive, aggression without remorse. Prior testing had revealed Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and possible sensory integration difficulties. He had limited relationships with other children. He watched three to four hours of television daily, including prior to school. His mother reported that he was only allowed to watch G-rated programs. She felt that television kept him happy and she did not think she could cope with his anger if
she curtailed it.

When Burke first saw Charles, he showed little emotion and, in particular, seemed devoid of joy. His fine motor skills were somewhat delayed.

Burke explains that the capacity to imagine, rather than act, allows children to solve problems mentally and to regulate themselves in everyday situations when they don’t have access to their parents. Burke questions whether Charles’ overexposure to media reduced his capacity to generate his own stories and play freely.

Charles began play therapy with Burke, and over six months his parents gradually reduced the amount of time he was allowed to watch television or play computer games to four hours per week. Burke reports that Charles’s symbolic, imaginative play blossomed. He expressed more emotion in his play, and his aggressive behavior declined significantly.

To understand how overexposure to media could effect child development and, thus, behavior, Burke reviewed the recent literature on child development. In summary:

  • The infant brain develops best when the environment around it — especially people — responds contingently to his behavior.
  • Responses are most meaningful to the child when they match the child’s level of vitality.
  • Parental responses that are attuned to the child use more of the senses, including touch.
  • Certain stimuli such as facial expressions of alarm, anger or lack of interest are inherently stressful to a young child. Excessive noise and disjointed events are also stressful.
  • Young children rely on their parents for soothing and assistance in making the world coherent and understandable.
  • In their early years, children need multiple opportunities to develop and integrate sensory inputs with symbolic thought and behavioral responses.
  • Interacting with their parents gives children the experience of intersubjectivity, that is, the sense of themselves and others that lays the foundation for empathy and a coherent sense of self.

This list reveals how overexposure to VEM can interfere with these essential developmental processes. VEM is non-contingent — the child’s response to the constantly changing facial expressions he views has no impact on what happens next. Visual electronic media are highly stimulating and noisy. Children often watch VEM alone, so they do not turn to their parents when they are frightened.

With increasing amounts of time spent in front of a screen, children have less opportunity to interact with real people, and this loss impairs their ability to develop empathy and thus, their capacity to form social relationships. The framework for moral behavior, the outgrowth of empathy, is also developed during contingent interaction with others.

Using television and other electronic media to provide gratification for children also prevents parents from learning to gauge their child’s need for nurturing vs. autonomy.

Burke believes that when a child like Charles turns to TV for soothing when he is disturbed, his parents do not realize the extent of his anxieties and he does not learn from others how to manage his anxieties. He does not have experience overcoming developmentally appropriate challenges and therefore has a much more limited experience of mastery which in turn diminishes his self-confidence.

Overstimulation of visual system

Another concern about VEM is that it overstimulates the visual system at the expense of other sensory systems. It deprives the child of necessary social interactions that foster self-regulation, and it contradicts the child’s innate ability to recognize the significance of facial expressions. It stimulates the child but blunts his capacity for imaginary problem solving. It interferes with the development of autonomy and prevents his parents from accurately understanding his needs.

Burke is not suggesting that exposure to VEM inevitably causes behavior problems. But she recommends that VEM should be used in moderation with young children and that family activities and contingent interaction with parents and opportunities for a wide a variety of activities are important for healthy development.

Avoidance of social interactions and increased time with VEM are seen in modern manifestations of depression, anxiety and psychosis. VEM appears to hold an addictive power over certain vulnerable children and it can lead to declines in social behavior. 

Happily, Burke has found that VEM-induced changes in behavior and mental processes are reversible. She writes that the “cheapest, least invasive and least risky intervention is to turn off the TV and play together.”

“The Influence of Television and Visual Electronic Media on Brain Development”, The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, Volume 19, Number 7, July 2003, pp. 1-7.

Published in ERN September 2003 Volume 16 Number 6

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