Breaking out of the Box

The average Australian child watches about four hours of television a day! Videos, computer and Playstation games add to the amount of time children spend staring at a screen. How does all this viewing affect their developing minds?

Are these technological advances really the best thing since sliced bread? Or are they just the next best thing to parents? Is it easier for parents to provide ‘educational entertainment’ for their children than to get down and dirty and play with their children?

Throughout the 2.5 million years of human presence on the planet, children grew through their developmental years immersed in whole events. These events, however repetitious or dull, dramatic or life threatening, were real and taught real lessons. Recent research confirms that the brain cannot develop harmoniously without a rich and varied mixture of whole, three-dimensional (physical, emotional, intellectual) experiences.

We are a tough, resilient species; our capacity to compensate for damage is enormous. But something is going very wrong: we have a growing number of children, of all ages, that cannot relate normally to anyone, that cannot show empathy, that have great difficulty learning, that have weakened immune systems, that are violent and aggressive.

Our children could compensate for medically mismanaged births and the ensuing separation anxiety of minimalistic breastfeeding, day-care and its abandonment and lack of genuine parental attachment, but children can’t compensate beyond a point, and we went beyond that point years ago. Some 10 years after we began to systematically separate mothers from their babies in hospitals, eliminating bonding and breaking down development of the heart/brain biofeedback link, we introduced television, the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The viewing content of TV can be emotionally damaging, though its major damage is neurological and physical. Overall brain development requires a safe, secure environment where all of the child’s needs are met and a strong attachment is formed with the mother, at least. This begins very early, and in children who play very little and are not nurtured by a great deal of cuddling, touching and being talked to, the brain may be reduced in overall size by as much as 30% and its normal development and function greatly reduced, forever.

Television has supplanted play in children’s lives. Play develops intelligence; integrates our three brains; prepares us for higher education, creative thought, and taking part in and upholding a social structure; and helps us prepare for becoming an effective parent when that time comes. Play is children’s work and the fundamental force of society and civilisation; a breakdown in the ability to play will reflect in a breakdown in society. Today parents rarely play with their children, and sibling play is also greatly reduced. Thus no capacity for play and imagination or internal imaging develops. The child not played with does not learn to play, and play is the ‘work’ and intelligence of childhood, and all learning, lifelong. TV entertains the mind, and entertainment is not play. Entertainment cannot, by the nature of the formation of the neural fields involved, educate, and nor can TV. In the beginning television replaced storytelling in most homes, and it changed the radio from a storyteller to a music box. It has replaced verbal, non-verbal and emotional forms of communication between parent and child, the deep bonding already weakened by childbirth interventions, the lost intimacies of breastfeeding, day-care induced separation anxiety and societal expectations that babies will be ‘good’.

Television also replaced family conversation in general; the television tray replaced the dinner table and its captivating table talk. Grandparents have a primary need to relate their lifestories and share the wisdom of their years, which can give children a sense of history, provides continuity between generations and establishes a continuum of meaning to life. Children need to know who they are and where they come from, the security of family traditions gives significance to life. A lot of today’s youth are lost because they don’t have a sense of identity, a sense of being a valued member of a family with a living history. Television has stolen this from the future generations also, because family histories are dying with grandparents. The most critical damage is done in the early years when the child should be living in their imagination, learning through fantasy play. Television floods the infant/child brain with complete imagery at the very time his or her brain is supposed to make images from within. Storytelling feeds into the infant/child a stimulus that brings about a response of image making that involves every aspect of our three-brain system.

Television feeds both stimulus and response into that infant/child brain, as a single-paired effect, flooding the brain with a counterfeit of the response the brain is supposed to learn to make to the stimuli of words or music. As a result, much structural coupling between mind and environment is eliminated; few metaphoric images develop; few higher cortical areas of the brain are called into play, so there is no development of symbolic conceptual systems, crucial for higher learning.

All higher forms of intelligence on which a society depends, such as empathy, compassion, love, as well as the later stages of intellectual development, science, philosophy, religion, are based on capacities for abstract thought and the metaphoric-symbolic structures of mind developed through internal image-making, which begins formation in the first year of life.

No opportunity to stretch the imagination in the early days means limited imaginary capacity later in life. Television as a source of paired image and sound can be assimilated by a single set of neural fields. No creative response to such stimuli need or can be made. That means, in effect, that those six thousand hours of television the average child sees by age five might as well have been one program. So much for the wonderful information and learning programs often proposed for those six thousand hours. An equally insidious effect is habituation – the natural condition of our primitive first brain is a fight or flight response, no other response is possible, so the primitive brain will avoid new stimuli, whereas the neocortex seeks out novelty and challenge in order to enlarge the number of neural fields involved in new image patterns. If our brain doesn’t extend beyond the first primitive brain we are living in a purely reactive mode, ready for flight or fright, adrenalin flowing and continually stressed, not able to learn anything new. This is the main cause of brain atrophy in children. ‘Use it or lose it’ is nature’s dictum, and we are losing it. As well children are becoming sicker because of the high levels of cortisol in their bodies due to spending so much time in stress reactive state. Habituation also hypnotises the brain, puts it to sleep, since the stimulus includes the brain’s own response and so demands almost no energy output from the brain, while it occupies the mind so that no other stimuli are sought. Even as adults we can have difficulty turning away from the TV; we may dislike the program playing, but we are hypnotised. Often we are unable to remember details of what we watched later on and feel very tired and ‘fuzzy’ brained. Children, who cannot see in symbols, have difficulties with even basic concepts of civilisation, rules, social mores etc; they can sense only what is immediately bombarding their physical system and are restless and ill at ease without such bombardment. Being sensory deprived they initiate stimulus through constant movement or intensely verbal interaction with each other, which is often mistaken for precocity but is actually a verbal hyperactivity filling the gaps of the habituated bombardments. They are no longer able to relax, enjoy nature, relate simply to people and live in the moment. The world of TV has made them unable to enjoy the real world.

In real life, conversation is reciprocal and participatory; it allows time for reflection, questions, and feedback. Television, however, is a one-way street, where you have to concentrate, ask no questions and take no time for thought, because the next scene will appear in seconds and programmers go to a lot of trouble to keep the content totally dynamic. As a result, children learn not to think but to remain passive and unresponsive to whatever stimulus appears before them. Since young children’s questions and imaginations are the cornerstone of their learning processes, remaining unresponsive hour after hour, day after day, year after year surely affects their intellectual, emotional, and moral development.

If the TV viewing (catatonia) continues the scenario only worsens. Having no inner imaging capacity leaves most of the brain unemployed, and a child who can’t imagine, not only can’t learn but also has no hope in general. He/she cannot imagine an inner scenario to replace the outer one, so feel victimised by the environment. Studies show that unimaginative children are far more prone to violence than imaginative children, because they can’t imagine an alternative when direct sensory information is threatening, insulting, unpleasant or unrewarding. They lash out in typical primitive brain defensiveness; while the imaginative child can imagine an alternative, find a way out. True play is the ability to play with one’s reality. Thus imagination gives resiliency, flexibility, endurance, and the capacity to forgo immediate reward on behalf of long-term strategies.

Toys are another example of the deep influence TV is having on children. Children are happiest with sandpits, sticks, paper, string, material etc; they don’t need expensive, complicated real-life replicas powered by batteries or dolls with grossly exaggerated bodies that distort children’s own body imagery and expectations. Of course these toys are presold to the children via TV and they also feel a group authenticity, a belonging not found elsewhere, especially if they are being parented by the TV and computer.

While the screen itself prevents neural development, its contents affect behaviour. By 1963, studies had shown a direct one-for-four correspondence between the content of TV and behaviour. The American Psychological Association notes that children who regularly watch violence on TV are more fearful and distrustful of the world, less bothered by violence and slower to call for help when they witness violent behaviour. Violence on TV produces violent behaviour in children. Everyone knows that once one has habituated to violence as a way of life, anything else is boring. There are 16 acts of violence per hour of children’s programming, only eight per hour on adults’. Life is shown to be cheap and expendable, that rude irresponsible behaviour is not only acceptable but can even be glamorous. They learn about sex and violence when they should still be in a time of innocence, yet we condemn them for being violent and do nothing to remove the cause. They learn to act impulsively, without reflection or advice from elders. Qualities like wisdom and processes such as thinking through a problem are difficult to express on a TV screen, especially when the medium relies on sensationalism and shock, rather than character and insight. As our damaged children grow up and become parents and teachers, damage will be the norm, the way of life. We will habituate to damage. How can you miss something you can’t even recognise, something you never had?

I believe that the television has made a significant contribution to our multi-faceted social-ecological breakdown. It is such an insidious, worldwide addiction, that the majority devote most of their lives to without a second thought. Television produces a mindset almost incapable of critical evaluation of what the device does to the mind. Which is how all addictions are perpetuated. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not watch any TV or videos, and that older children watch only one hour per day of non-violent, educational TV. The best way to keep TV from becoming an issue with children, of course, is not to begin using it. But if it is too late for that, you can do what I did, and call a family conference to explain the reasons why you no longer want to have TV in your home and to ask for a trial of life without TV. This was initially shocking for some members, but it quickly became evident that it was a relief to all to not have that draw away from real life.

There is now no limit to the games and activities our family can enjoy. We are having fun together again and the children are particularly enjoying reading more. The main thing is to remain steadfast in the withdrawal from this addiction, but even when the TV is viewed in another home, we find it is no longer interesting and is actually rather irritating. A whole world of possibilities has now opened up: hobbies, sports, art, nature, music, yoga, reading, and family fun out in the real world living each moment to the full. If your children do watch TV you should watch it with them, and provide understanding of issues that may arise. You can teach them critical viewing skills instead of allowing them to be passive couch potatoes. Media literacy is a valid life skill for children to develop; they need to be able to question and challenge programming and advertisements, to avoid being manipulated and exploited. Set clear guidelines on the amount and quality of the television your children watch; put them in control of the TV, rather than the TV being in control of them.

Even educational programs, how ever, are no substitute for reading to or spending time with your children. Devoting the best of yourself to your children in their early years is crucial to the quality of the rest of your lives together. The family that plays together stays together and has the best life!


The Children Of Cyclops by Keith Buzzell.
The Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce.

Published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 4, December 02


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