Television, Screen Media and the Impact on Sensory Regulation and Attention

Television is the world’s most popular leisure activity. Adults over the age of 15 years, watched 2 hours and 49 minutes per person per day in the USA, and 3½ hours per person per day in the UK.

In recent years, every aspect of good parenting has been debated and discussed, and generally good recommendations have been made. On the subject of television viewing, whether it is bad for children, and how much is okay - there is little consensus and the ambiguity as well as the lack of consistency in the various recommendations is confusing. Some say it’s okay if the content is good. Others say it’s okay provided that the parents sit and watch alongside their children. They feel that in this way they will be able to offer the necessary commentary for their children, thereby ensuring that the viewing experience is a quality experience. So what are the facts? What do parents need to know about the effects of TV on the developing brain?

In August, 1999 and again in 2005 and in Sept 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), issued guidelines on television viewing that clearly recommended children under the age of two years, should not watch television or any screen entertainment. They further indicated that children of all ages should not have a television in their bedrooms, as television “can negatively affect early brain development”. It was found that early television viewing exposure was associated with attentional problems at age seven. Specifically, children who watch television at ages one and three, have a significantly increased risk of developing attentional problems by age seven. They found that for every hour of television a child watches per day, there is a 9% increase in attentional damage. They suggest banning all screen time during the formative years to reduce the risk of developing ADHD.

Television and Infants

“Television corrupts the reward system that enables us to pay attention to other things in life”. (Sigman, A).

Television triggers our orienting response. We have a built-in sensitivity to movement or to sudden changes in our visual field or in our auditory field. Our “survival response” is triggered in this way. TV triggers involuntary responses because we are biologically programmed to detect and pay attention to movements, something that television has in abundance. It is the form, not the content of television, which is unique. So television is able to grab our attention.

But what is it that makes us keep watching? Attentional inertia is the term used to describe the situation, in which we keep on attending in spite of beginning to lose interest. A child who tries to follow a conversation between two adults, and who begins to lose interest as he no longer understands what is being said, displays “attentional inertia”. Television however ensures this attentional inertia, by ensuring a high number of edits in order to hold our attention. Television producers discovered some time ago that a higher pace of edits in TV programmes attracts particularly younger viewers. It would appear that TV conditions children to having short attention spans. The nature of television in recent years has changed, and commercial channels ensure that they get your attention by ensuring frequent edits and a variety of electronic tricks and attention-grabbing approaches.

In addition to the above effects of attention, and to effectively reducing attention span in infants, there are also other concerns; the child who spends long periods of time watching television forgoes time that could be spent playing outdoors and developing gross-motor abilities and skills. The junk-food and take-out culture of TV viewing also predisposes children to poor eating habits and to obesity.

Adults who spend excessive time watching TV are also at risk of developing a number of health issues related to obesity and poor lifestyle.

Another finding has been that the exposure to artificial light and reduced time in the dark may result in reduced levels of melatonin, which contributes to less sleep and poor sleep patterns. Research has also found that reducing a child’s use of television and computers is linked to a dramatic increase in melatonin levels.

In their recent update on the topic, the AAP also made the following recommendations for parents, with regard to the use of television and screen media:

1. Be the parent and be a role model. “The same parenting rules apply to your children’s real and virtual environments. Play with them. Set limits; kids need and expect them. Be involved. Also, limit your own media use, and model online etiquette. Attentive parenting requires face time away from screens."

2. We learn from each other. “Neuroscience research shows that very young children learn best via two-way communication. Talk time between caregiver and child is critical for language development. Passive video presentations do not lead to language learning in infants and young toddlers.”

3. Content matters. “The quality of content is more important than the platform or time spent with media. Prioritize how your child spends his time rather than just setting a timer.”

4. Be involved with your children when they are using technology. “Family participation with media facilitates social interactions and learning. For infants and toddlers, co-viewing is essential.”  They however still adhere to the advice that children under two years should not be exposed to television or screen media.

5. It’s OK for your teen to be online. “Online relationships are integral to adolescent development. Social media can support identity formation. Teach your teen appropriate behaviours that apply in both the real and online worlds. Ask teens to demonstrate what they are doing online to help you understand both content and context.”