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One More Reason to Unplug Your Television

TV exposure can impair a child’s cognitive development.

My 6-year-old is addicted to watching DVDs whenever she’s in the car. Like most parents, we struggle to limit her screen time, but it seems to be a constant battle. My daughter is not alone in this TV ‘addiction.’ Most kids seem to crave television. It’s a problem.

The statistics on daily childhood screen time and the negative impact that television has on cognitive development are alarming. Despite new technologies like iPads and video games, television continues to dominate children’s screen time.

The average American home has 2.86 TV sets, which is roughly 18% higher than in the year 2000 (2.43 sets per home), and 43% higher than in 1990 (2.0 sets). In America, there are currently more televisions per home than human beings. This is disconcerting to me.

On average, children under the age of 8 spend over 90 minutes a day watching television or DVDs. Nearly 33% of American children live in a household where the television is on all or most of the time. Children between the ages 8-18 years old watch an average of three hours of television a day. On average, 61% of children under two use some type of screen technology and 43% watch television every day.

Television Exposure Reduces ‘Theory of Mind’ in Preschoolers

Theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own. Deficits of theory of mind often occur in people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), schizophrenia, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Unfortunately, television is the least interactive of any new media and is the one most likely to reduce theory of mind. A paper titled “The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers” was published on November 19, 2013 in the Journal of Communication. The researchers found that preschoolers who have a TV in their bedroom and are exposed to more background TV have a weaker understanding of other people's beliefs and desires, and reduced cognitive development.

For this new study, researchers at The Ohio State University interviewed and tested 107 children and their parents to determine the relationship between preschoolers' television exposure and their understanding of mental states, such as beliefs, intentions, and feelings, known as theory of mind.

Parents of children in the study were asked to report how many hours of TV their children were exposed to, including background TV. Then the children were given tasks based on theory of mind. These tasks assessed whether the children could acknowledge that others can have different beliefs and desires, that beliefs can be wrong, and that behaviors stem from beliefs.

The researchers found that having a bedroom TV and being exposed to more background TV was related to a weaker understanding of mental states, even after accounting for differences in performance based on age and the socioeconomic status of the parent.

This study is unique in that it shows that TV exposure may impair children's theory of mind development, and this impairment may be partly responsible for disruptive social behaviors. Interestingly, preschoolers whose parents talked with them about the potential drawbacks of watchinig too much TV performed better on theory of mind assessments.

"When children achieve a theory of mind, they have reached a very important milestone in their social and cognitive development," said lead researcher Amy Nathanson. "Children with more developed theories of mind are better able to participate in social relationships. These children can engage in more sensitive, cooperative interactions with other children and are less likely to resort to aggression as a means of achieving goals."

Could the Dramatic Rise of ADHD be Linked to Screen Time?

A different study from the CDC released on November 22, 2013 found that nearly half of US children diagnosed with ADHD received that diagnosis by age 6. Over 3.5 million children in the U.S. (6% of 4-17 year olds) were reported by their parents to be taking medication for ADHD, a 28% increase from 2007 to 2012. 6.4 million children in the U.S. (11% of 4-17 year olds) were reported by their parents to have received an ADHD diagnosis from a healthcare provider, a 42% increase from 2003 to 2012.

The new study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (JAACAP), reported that an estimated two million more children in the United States have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) between 2003 and 2012. One million more U.S. children were taking medication for ADHD between 2003 to 2012.

What is causing the dramatic increase in ADHD diagnoses? Is ADHD really on the rise as much as the statistics suggest? What are the long-term impacts of pumping young American children full of pharmaceuticals?

Children's bodies and minds have evolved for millennia without these costly drugs. It seems that taking these 'medications' would be a shock to the delicate balance of the developing body and mind of a child. Stimulants like: Ritalin, Concerta; amphetamines like, Dexedrine, Adderall; and anti-depressants like Wellbutrin are all commonly prescribed to treat ADHD. Undoubtedly, taking these drugs will have a dramatic impact on the long-term neurobiology of anyone who starts taking them at a young age.

I believe that physical activity is a potential antidote for ADHD. Pharmaceuticals are not the answer. Wouldn’t allowing kids to run outside and play more every day help relieve some of their pent up energy, make them less prone to hyper activity, and make it easier to sit still and focus? It seems like common sense. In addition to the obesity epidemic—which threatens the physical health of American children—sitting in front of a TV screen and being sedentary weakens a child’s ability to focus, have theory of mind and impairs cognitive development.

Young Hollywood stars of the MGM era used to be given 'uppers' much like Adderal and Dexedrine which are now commonly prescribed for ADHD. Judy Garland, and many other young performers, were constantly given amphetamines to keep up with the hectic pace of film making—to not gain weight—and then given barbiturates to help them fall asleep. For Judy Garland, this regular dose of uppers and downers led to addiction and a lifelong struggle with drugs, which led to her early death at age 47. Garland always blamed MGM for robbing her of her youth.

On the flip side, Little Women author Louisa May Alcott often described the passion for physical activity she had as a child. Alcott had an ecstatic connection to running that seemed deeply embedded in her cells. She loved to run through the woods as a child. Louisa May Alcott once said:

Active exercise was my delight from the time when a child of six I drove my hoop around the Common without stopping, to the days when I did my twenty miles in five hours and went to a party in the evening. I always thought I must have been a deer or a horse in some former state, because it was such a joy to run. No boy could be my friend until I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy. . . My wise mother, anxious to give me a strong body to support a lively brain, turned me loose in the country and let me run wild.

I know the times have changed, but Louisa May Alcott’s mom was wise to understand the importance of physical activity on a child's developing brain. Parents of today could benefit by adhering to her wisdom and allowing our children to 'run wild' a little more, and 'helicopter' parent a little less.

Conclusion: Motor Skills and Hand-Eye Coordination Improve Childhood Cognition

Physical activity, practicing a musical instrument, being creative, and playing in the ‘real world’—where a child interacts and observes hand and eye movements—all optimize brain development and healthy brain connectivity. Humans have not evolved for millennia to spend our childhoods interacting with a two-dimensional screen or existing in cyberspace. I believe this "future shock" is causing the minds and bodies of 21st century children to short circuit.

Every day, new research is being published about the importance of children strengthening and pruning neural connections between different brain areas as part of healthy cognitive development. Being sedentary and spending too much time watching television causes both hemispheres of the cerebellum to shrink and to not connect properly with the left and right hemispheres of the cerebrum.

Among other things, this lack of connectivity between all four brain hemispheres can stunt a child’s physical, emotional, social, and intellectual development. Luckily, this is something that we can easily change as parents, teachers, and caregivers. Daily activities that include physical activity and improve motor skills will bulk up the cerebellum.

Keeping the cerebellum strong and well connected to other brain regions will improve a child’s cognitive and social skills, among many other things. Daily activities that flex the cerebellum also reduce obesity and improve hand-eye coordination.

These ‘cerebellar’ (of or pertaining to the cerebellum) activities strengthen the "implicit" learning of automatic skills and complement the cerebral "explicit" learning of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Balancing the strength and connectivity of all four brain hemispheres will most likely benefit children with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other learning disabilities.

If you’d like to read more on this topic please check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

UPDATE: For more on the topic of soaring ADHD diagnoses amid a 20-year drug marketing campaign check out Alan Schwarz's December 14, 2013 New York Times article "The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder."

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