Saturday, July 09, 2011

Watching Television Is Relaxing

Watching television relaxes you. The almost undetectable screen flicker is a perfect mechanism for lowering our brain waves into the alpha state, the condition we're going for when we meditate. This is why it's so effective for calming an agitated or over-stimulated kid. It's so effective that even those who watch very little TV, and are therefore "unconditioned," are put into that state in 3 minutes or less. It's why so many parents, over decades now, have used "TV time" as a euphemism for "peace and quiet."

But as we all know, there's a price to pay for this shortcut to deep relaxation, just as there is with every shortcut ever devised. We all already know about the opportunity cost of watching TV, all that time spent sitting indoors instead of being outside getting exercise, which has lead in an almost straight line to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. And most of us are pretty attuned to the fact that advertisers are using the highest powered persuasive techniques ever devised to brainwash our children, and take measures to counteract that. But I'm surprised at how many parents are dismissive about what TV does to our brains.

When people watch more than an half hour or so of television at a stretch, they go beyond the meditative state and fall into what is popularly called a stupor. The longer they watch, the deeper the stupor. When the set is finally shut off, they are hung over. It's a real hang over, not a figurative one, not a metaphorical one, but one every bit as real as the kind one gets from drinking too much alcohol. We've all experienced how surly and out-of-sorts children are after a marathon of TV -- that's the hang over.

In college (30+ years ago) we were already talking in our journalism classes about the narcotizing effects of television. It's a real thing. I'm not saying that you should keep your child away from TV, but you need to know, it's no different than putting them on drugs. It's an effective, but not a harmless way to buy yourself a little peace and quiet.

So what exactly does happen to our children's brains as they watch TV?

For one thing, from almost the moment the pictures start to flicker, brain activity shifts from the left side of our brains (the part of our brains responsible for logical analysis and critical thought) to the right side. This means that there is little or no critical analysis taking place, opening their brains to a suggestible, hypnotic state. When we say that watching television is a "passive activity," it is true in a very real sense: scientists detect almost no beta waves at all in TV viewers, indicated no active involvement in or response to what we are watching.

TV is a physical addiction. It causes the brain to release those feel good chemicals called endorphins, morphine like substances created from within the body, and like all opiates, endorphins are highly addictive.

When you watch television your higher brain regions (like the mid-brain and the neo-cortex) simply shut down, leaving you with what is sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain. Studies show that over use of this fight-or-flight part of our brain leads to atrophy of the parts of our brain used for higher functions making us, to use the technical term, stupider.

Our brains, like our muscles, need to be "exercised" in order to remain healthy. The more one watches TV, the less exercise our brains get. Just as lack of physical exercise is known to lead to countless health issues as we get older, lack of mental exercise has been linked to an increased likelihood of being diagnosed with ADHD and other attention disorders, as well as dementia and Alzheimers later in life. (Not to mention the physical risks of heart disease, stroke, and cancer that result from too much sedentary time in front of the boob tube.)

And like with the use of drugs and alcohol, this narcotic of television is particularly dangerous when consumed by children given that their brains are not fully developed.

I know, what a bummer on a summer Saturday, but you know what? It's summer! It's Saturday! Get outside and play! Studies also show that children who play outdoors laugh 20 times more than their indoor, TV watching counterparts, and that's got to be better than quiet time.

Update:  I've written a follow-up to this post entitled I Don't Know What It Means, But It's True, in which I address many of the comments and questions from readers. I've also included links to reference materials used to write this post.

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Unknown said...

I have 5 children who are unschooled. They can watch as much TV, play as many video games or computer games, unlimited outside play or crafting or reading or talking or whatever they want. I don't put restrictions on my children's TV time or gaming time. Amazingly enough they choose to go outside and play or craft or read or create imangative games or any of a million other things that they choose to do. Yes, sometimes they sit and watch TV or play the computer for long stretches of time but they also do the other things for long stretches of time. When you restrict things they become treats and desires so by restricting these things we make them more enticing. I see my children use the things they have seen on TV or in their games and in other ways. They are learning all sorts of things. TV and computers are just another avenue for learning. They will come to me and talk with me about the actions or behavior or characters or moral issues and amazing conversations ensue.

For others because it's such a taboo they may not be able to use these things because they are dismissed as mush for the brain. We talk about the sedentary lifestyle of our children creating obesity and diabetes and link it to TV and computers what about all the hours children use in a classroom just sitting. Does that have no effect on obesity. I don't see children in a classroom doing calestenics while learning to read or do math or other "academinic" things. They are sitting ALL DAY LONG in a traditional classroom. It's no wonder when they come home from school they want to sit. They are tired and they aren't using their bodies all day so why at the down part of the day should we expect them to go run around and climb. Oh and not to mention homework. When most adults get home from work they just want to sit as well.

Our family isn't an anomoly there are many unschoolers out there who report the same behaviors. Look into it. Is it really TV and computers or is it because children don't have any time to be children to learn the value of different things in life and because TV and computer are such a taboo we drive them to want them more.

This is one reason I like your preschool because it isn't sedentary and quiet. It's very active and there's alot going on. You seem to be very wonderful with everything you set up and do with the kids at your preschool. I wish there was a preschool here for my kids like yours. They might go.

woodenspade said...

I wholeheartedly agree about the stupor-inducing effects of TV watching. I know that I've found myself watching FAR too much TV. A month ago, I got rid of cable. We now have NO TV at all. And you know what? It took quite a while for me to get out of the habit of plopping down in front of the TV at the end of a long stressful day. But I have read a couple dozen books since then!

Teacher Tom said...

@DMDR . . . I think you're onto something there for sure. Maybe being physically active is a kind of defense against the addictive properties of TV. As I was researching this post, I did come across a study that shows that reading counteracts the addiction.

@woodnspade . . . I haven't had a TV for some time as well, but I just got back from a (very active) vacation in a place with TV in my room, which got me thinking about this in the first place. I certainly felt the zoning out effects almost instantly when I turned it on at night -- in fact it put me to sleep after about 5 minutes!

Unknown said...

I totally agree that TV is not the best choice over all the other wonderful things children could be doing, but I think a big part of being a good parent is accepting that we aren't always able to give our children the best. No one can be the perfect parent or make the perfect choices all the time. We have limited TV time, only an hour a day in the middle of the day, and we do it because we as parents need a break. It's a time where I can have a bit of quiet and do something I want or need to do without being interrupted. At first, I felt guilty doing it, but that quiet TV time reengerizes me for the rest of the day to be a more relaxed parent to my child. If parents are using TV all day long at the cost of the child playing and socializing, then yes it's a problem. But I think moderation is key.

Aunt Annie said...

Brilliant post, Tom- thanks. I will be bookmarking it for future use.

I have always been well aware of the effect of too much TV on creativity and imaginative play, but knowing a bit about the science behind it is very useful- so cheers!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I definitely watched quite a bit of TV as a kid, but I also remember doing a lot of tree climbing, playing outside, crafting, imaginary play with friends, etc. And those are the things that are still a part of me today!


Mel said...

Great post! Interesting facts too. We got rid of cable last year. My kids are limited now as to what they can watch - we don't have a digital box either. Once the weather gets nice, they are outside all day. But I agree, tv is addicting. I'd rather watch tv myself than doing what I need to do. One of the reasons it's gone.

Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

Amy @ simply necessary said...

Do you think this same state is true with internet browsing? I'd be interested to know.

Sigh. Trying not to feel too guilty that Dora is the only thing that will keep my little one on the potty long enough to have success!

Natalie said...

Great post. Just wondering if you can suggest some alternatives for relaxing a child without the ill affects of the tv. Currently I'm having some success with books on tape (or record!) and building projects, but I'm sure that will get old after a couple months too. With a very active 5 yr old and a 2 yr old besides I'm wondering about ideas for times I need that "peace and quiet". I involve them with what I'm doing when I can, but sometimes I need something to occupy for a bit. said...

Are refering to all screen time or just television? I spend a lot of time working on a computer, and it is hardly a passive state. Additonally, since you used screen flicker as an entry point to this discussion, could changing that,like you can do with a computer monitor, reduce or eliminate the effects you are discribing?

Anna said...

Can you post your sources? I'm curious to read more.

janetlansbury said...

Wow, thank you, Tom. This is brilliant and brave. I understand why parents resort to TV, even for babies, but I've seen it create the very problem the parent is trying to resolve -- a child who finds it difficult to self-entertain and can't tolerate boredom. When innundated with screen time, some children seem to lose their natural ability to invent play.

@dmdr Your concern about restricting TV use has not been my experience with 3 children. "When you restrict things they become treats and desires so by restricting these things we make them more enticing." My 18 and 14 year old daughters have only an occasional interest in TV, and my 9 year old follows the family rule to only watch on weekend evenings. None of them were introduced to TV or videos until they were 3-4 years old and then it was severely restricted. They've never complained. In fact, they seem to appreciate this "brain" protection. They notice how much easier school is for them than it is for many of their peers. They are far less stressed about learning than most of their friends, and I believe that is because they have solid listening and retention skills. Screen use has a desensitizing effect that hinders those important learning skills. (Jane Healy shares plenty of research on this subject in her book Endangered Minds and there has been much more since that book was written.)

To the commenter asking about books on CD, etc., Those are wonderful! The child's brain is active when he is listening to music or stories -- he's creating mental images. Those things are perfect for entertainment during down time.

Emily @ play talk learn said...

This was very interesting - thankyou for sharing your thoughts. I will be looking further into the topic for sure. We just had a week's family holiday with no TV and we found many benefits, including less grumpiness, easier bedtimes and many more cuddles from the kids!

Vickie@Demand_Euphoria said...

@DMDR, Thank you for sharing your experience. I am doing the same with my kids, who are only 2 and 4 now, but I have already seen what you are talking about as well. My kids are not stupefied by the television. They both have healthy relationships with it, and I have no reason to doubt it won't continue that way.

Maybe the kids who are only allowed to watch for an hour a day feel like they have to focus more intently on it for that time, knowing it will be their only opportunity to do so.

Anonymous said...

This is an absolutely wonderful article. I can never read too many of them. I was raised in a pretty mainstream family, however my parents (in the 70s) got rid of our family TV. Gosh, you can imagine the criticism and skepticism they faced. They heard, every single day, that we would become addicted to it, because it was restricted. I am so incredibly grateful for this experience of my childhood. I read and rode my bike all day every day. My husband and I have raised our teenage daughters without television as well (in our community, it is not uncommon) and I have two incredibly engaged and healthy young women now. I agree wholeheartedly!
Go outside and play!!

Anonymous said...

This is an absolutely wonderful article. I can never read too many of them. I was raised in a pretty mainstream family, however my parents (in the 70s) got rid of our family TV. Gosh, you can imagine the criticism and skepticism they faced. They heard, every single day, that we would become addicted to it, because it was restricted. I am so incredibly grateful for this experience of my childhood. I read and rode my bike all day every day. My husband and I have raised our teenage daughters without television as well (in our community, it is not uncommon) and I have two incredibly engaged and healthy young women now. I agree wholeheartedly!
Go outside and play!!

Anonymous said...

I had no restrictions for tv while growing up in the 80's and because of it I would honestly watch it from sun up to sun down. I look back at my childhood and see that I missed soooo much. I missed out on books, climbing trees, crafts, and just playing outside and getting dirty. Sure I did all those things a little bit, but the majority of the time I spent watching the screen.
With my own boys it's quite different. From a young age I noticed the obsessive quality with all things screen. So I quickly started restricting tv time to one show per child a day. So they each get a 20 min show. I have found this to be a happy balance in our household, especially since they watch their shows in the morning while I'm getting breakfast, making coffee and waking up. And that way I'm also not hearing 'can I watch tv' all day. It's good to read about what happens to your brain while your watching tv. It makes me sad that I would spend 8+ hours a day as a child.

I've shared this post with some of my friends and a few are looking into the sources/research you used. Are you able to share?

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous (and others who've asked) . . . I've not had a TV for quite some time but recently returned from a vacation where I had one in my room and and I noticed how "drugged" it made me feel. When I returned I started reading and this post came out of it kind of willy-nilly. Today (Monday) I wrote a follow-up in which I included links to the articles I found most useful in writing this piece:

Sadly, blogger won't make this into a clickable link, so you'll have to copy and past it.

Unknown said...

@Vicki - keep going! It is a wonderful lifestlye.

@annoymous - I had no restrictions for tv while growing up in the 80's and because of it I would honestly watch it from sun up to sun down. This leaves me wondering if you went to school?

My point was maybe it's not so much the TV as what we are doing with the rest of our day. Most of us spend our days sitting - in a classroom or at work. When we get home we can choose whether to turn on the TV or read a book or do the dishes or play a game. Many of these thing require energy - watching TV doesn't. Don't blame the device. A gun isn't violent, the person holding it is the problem.

At this point in our society it is hard to get an accurate portrayal of the effects of TV because you can't isolate the rest of the subject's lives in order to truely see what TV does. A subject comes in for a study from work or school or whatever their daily regime is and then is asked to sit and watch TV. What a stress relief not to have to do anything!

I LOVE reading and that is probably an understatement. When I was growing up my mother always told me I read too much - yes, she really told me that. Reading is an extremely isolating activity. It's very antisocial! TV on the other hand (at least in our house) is a very social event. People watch TV together all the time - watching a movie, or a series together or a sporting event. It enables creativity not hinders it. I watch my children all the time using things they have seen on TV in their day to day play or they use a word that I don't think I've used and they tell me they heard in on some TV show. Recently we've watch Xena Warrior Princess (great show - I love Netflix!) toghether as a family and we talked about Roman and Greek Gods, the monothestic Christian God and other religions because of this show. Not to mention numerous other topics that have come up from this show.

Reading gets all those same endorphins flowing as TV. I can stay up all night (and have on many occasions) reading or I can read and fall asleep in 10 minutes. No matter what you are using to avoid doing the dishes or your homework or raising your children, you're still not doing whatever the activity is.

For all of those intersested in having some quiet time without TV here are some suggestions - blocks, playdough, sensory bins, stickers, open crafting, puzzles, painting, figures of all types - war, pets, wild animals, dolls, action figures. The trick to these is to let - let them have their time with these things don't worry about the clean up. Right now we have a large box in our kitchen with rice and dried beans in it along with sorting utensils, pots, cars, yogurt containers, funnels. My kids will sit in that box for hours doing all sorts of things. For that matter just have empty boxes around for them to play in. There's nothing better to entertain a child than an empty box!

Anonymous said...

"This leaves me wondering if you went to school? "
haha, your right I did go to school, but I actually would fake being sick for the majority of the year just so I could stay home and watch tv.
I think my sun up to sun down comment was because I was thinking about summer vacation, and weekends. But even when it was a school day (and I was not faking a sickness) I'd watch 1 or 2 shows before school and then run home to watch the after school cartoons...and those would lead into wheel of fortune and jeopardy (that my grandma and mom watched) and then some family movie at night.

It sounds like having no limits on tv works for some people, but not for others. We have friends (who btw are unschoolers as well) that are this way and it works really well for them. I tried having no limits for a while and it just did not work. He would watch it all day if he could. I did a test to see how ling he would watch it (while I was doing exciting things outside or in another room and inviting him to join) he watched tv for 6 hours! And the tv only got turned off because I said enough is enough.
Anyway, like I said, it works for some families and not for others. I don't think it is necessarily because of being unschoolers either, because that is what I consider us, and my kids have so much time everyday to just play and be kids, but they still have that addictive behavior towards tv's, computers and video gaming.

Dr. Laura Markham said...

Tom- Thanks for this terrific post. TV is an addiction, no matter how old we are. As to whether TV becomes forbidden fruit, that has not been my experience. We just never turned the TV on except to watch an occasional family movie. My kids both noticed they were different from their peers since they'd never heard of all these TV shows, and that was sometimes uncomfortable for them. But they didn't see it as a deprivation, just another unique thing about our family, like the fact that we went to the library every week. They had the opportunity to watch TV at friends' houses all along but usually successfully talked their friends into more interesting activities. Since they never got used to tv, they were able to entertain themselves with creative pursuits from a very early age, and they both became avid readers and curious, self-motivated learners.

Squiggly Rainbow said...

Thank you Tom. I call our TV the 'Black Monster'. We moved recently and I wanted to leave the Black Monster behind.... my husband had different thoughts. I am going to forward this great blog post to him right now!

Smiles, Rach

Anonymous said...

Chris Van Allsberg wrote a wonderful book called "The Wretched Stone" which tells the tale of a ship full of sailors who become so mesmerized by a glowing boulder in the ship's hold that they all transform into monkeys unable to sail the ship onwards...would be a fun way to share this concept with the children :-)

Dawn, toddler teacher in San Diego

Elisabeth said...

The unschooling question actually is really interesting. Maybe that's something the scientists didn't account for when they checked the brainwaves of people watching tv. Did they also check the brain waves of kids who didn't spend all day in mind-numbing schoolrooms? Did they check adults who hadn't had their brains numbed by school or who don't have overly stressful or mind-numbing jobs? On the other hand my kids are 5 and 2, have never been to school and are addicted to tv. They are not zombified by it though. Not at all.

I'm interested in the hangover you talk about. I don't think I experience this as an adult.

Elisabeth said...

I must admit though I am an unschooler (not yet fully committed to it) who has to a small extent restricted access to tv. After a Long while, I will turn it off. So I say my kids are addicted which counters the unschooler above's claim because they haven't been in school, but they also haven't had unrestricted viewing. I will say though that frequently when they are allowed to watch as much as they want, they will leave the tv and start building things or engaging in other play. Completely on their own. Again, not at all zombified and able to break away which is not what we should expect given your article.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we as parents need down time too, but TV is not the only way to get it, thank goodness! All 3 of my very active kids (age 1 1/2 - 5 1/2) get a quiet time in the afternoon where they are required to play quietly by themselves (if they're not napping). I don't know if they need it or not, but I sure do!

Anonymous said...

I agree that the value of TV cannot be totally downplayed. We are unschoolers as well and find our 3 year old self-moderates. She watches her favorite shows with intense attention and turns the TV off to move on to some other activity that interests her. She can also speak four languages; Portuguese and French are limited but learned entirely from watching children's shows in other languages. Ask any Dutch person how they learned to speak so many languages (typically more than three) and they will tell you from TV (the country is small and imports programs from other countries then adds subtitles). My experience shows that TV is a great medium for visual as well as auditory learners and can be used for positive reasons depending on the intended purpose of the user.

Teacher Tom said...

I'm happy to hear that some of you feel your children are not being hurt by watching TV. These are interesting anecdotes, but I cannot find any actual data or research that leads me to re-evaluate what I've written here or in the follow-up post. I can find nothing in the literature that supports what you've written here.

Perhaps you are simply lucky. Perhaps you have found a some sort of way to "inoculate" your children against the narcotizing effects of TV. Perhaps you simply have children who are not prone to addiction -- after all everyone who smokes does not become addicted to cigarettes either, although we still know it's bad for the body. I am not refuting anything you've said is true about your own kids, but please know that you are in a minority.

I do know that many democratic free schools, places founded upon the "unschooling" principles of children directing every aspect of their own education, have had to eliminate or strictly limit screen time because of the negative effects on children, their physical fitness, and their relationships with others. And I have known many addicts who insist that their alcohol or drug use is under control and, in fact, a positive thing in their lives -- this is very common part of how addiction makes a mind work.

Again, more power to you and your TV watching, but the scientific and medical evidence overwhelming indicate being very careful with television around children, with doctors recommending zero TV for children under 2. Please be careful.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I also believe an important part of this conversation is what exactly people and children are watching on TV. I mean if children are watching educational shows compared to 'adult' content television, there is a big difference. I am on the fence over it as a part of me feels guilty for allowing tv on in the background ( I have 1 one year old son) and then a part of me feels it isn't the best thing and I should turn it off. I guess what freaked me out a bit is that my one year old actually picks up the remote and points it at the TV! I am a great parent and very aware of everything we eat organic and no sugar etc etc (see my need to justify here haha) but I must admit I find it hard to get through the day as a stay at home mum who doesn't drive and I often feel a bit isolated so the tv makes me feel like I'm not in the house alone. I don't believe I watch any 'bad' tv when Jack is playing but he does get very fixated on the ads, it's more the songs and jingles he responds to. I have started turning it off a lot lately and putting on music but myself as being someone who is totally addicted to tv I find it hard. I mean I played outside a lot and and have a fantastic imagination from reading etc as a child but tv prob gave me a great imagination as well. I think as a parent there are soooooo many things to feel guilty about it's easy for a lot of people to comment and judge but you also have to do what is right for you and your own family. Great write though and def something to work on, anyway must go now my favourite show is on :-) hehe

harmonyathome said...

Hi Tom, really interesting article. I think it would be fantastic in an ideal world of no TV and Mums who don't have to work and are surrounded by supportive family.

I hardly watch TV but I grew up with the TV as my babysitter as I was an only child. I am certain that the TV saved me from a much deeper depression in my teens - it was a wonderful distraction from my pain.

I would classify myself as an overthinker, a critical thinker and a creative spirit.

After reading your article I am left wondering what countered my mind numbing, addictive TV damage?

I work with parents who are isolated, unsupported, stressed, exhausted, financially struggling and the thing that hurts them the most is guilt - guilt for letting their child watch a bit of telly, guilt for not being proactive enough in their play, guilt for not having the time to be perfect, guilt for being stressed and guilt for all the damage they are supposedly inflicting on their children.

I think that love counters a lot of stuff.

Happy parent - happy children.

Karl-Johan said...

Hello, Tom!

Thank you for an interesting post! One thing that got me thinking was this:

"The almost undetectable screen flicker is a perfect mechanism for lowering our brain waves into the alpha state, the condition we're going for when we meditate."

Why? I'll try to keep it short!
I've recently been diagnosed with ADD, which can make some things (such as parenting) somewhat stressful at times. My high school grades were mediocre at best and I dropped out of collage. Luckily, ever since I was a kid, I've had a keen interest in computers and video games which could keep me focused for hours and hours. After school, I pursued a career in the IT industry, which turned out to be a success.
Now, I'm wondering to what extent the soothing effect of screen flicker could have played in my life!

However, I've failed to find anything but blog posts and forum discussions supporting that. Could you please provide a scientific source that supports that statement?

(Furthermore, if screen flicker would have that effect, what impact does does different refresh rates (NTSC 50Hz, PAL 60Hz, or newer monitors 144Hz) and display technologies (CRT, LCD, projector) have?)

I agree with your post. I really don't think that watching TV as a form of entertainment is healthy for anyone (regardless of age). I'm just curious, looking for facts.

Thanks for a great blog, keep up the good work! :)