This Is Your Child’s Brain on Television

This is the technological age, no question. Most four-year-olds can expertly manipulate any smart phone and can DVR with the best of them. While this technological savvy will no doubt serve them well as they advance through school and into the world, how else might this inundation of screen time affect them?

Most parents know they aren’t “supposed” to allow their newborn to two year olds watch any television because research says it inhibits their developing brain, stunting its creative potential. Yet most parents, at one point or another, have put baby in front of Caillou or Baby Mozart to steal a moment’s respite. So much for scientific research!

Screen time tends to increase as a child grows, too, with recent numbers indicating that the average child spends approximately seven and often, upwards of eleven hours a day with some form of media, including computers, iPads, and the like. That’s nearly half the day’s hours commanded by images and messages, often of a questionable nature.

As parents, we know this probably isn’t healthy. We are told it isn’t; to limit our children’s screen time; to encourage them to get outside, read, and use their imaginations. But for most overworked, overly tired moms and dads, a little distraction seems very appealing, so we plop them in front of Nick Jr. and hope for the best.


Power button pressing on TV remote control
Power OFF those electronics and turn ON your child’s imagination!



A recent article in the Journal of Pediatrics asks, “Why Is It So Hard to Believe that Media Influences Children and Adolescents?” (Strasburger, et al) The implication being that if we really believed the research that said that prolonged exposure to violent and sexualized content on television and video games negatively affected our children, then of course we wouldn’t let them spend so much time with these diversions. Yet we still do. Why? It’s a fair question.


Let’s refresh ourselves with the actual numbers to which this article refers:

  • Violence: More than 2,000 studies show a direct relationship between aggressive behaviors and attitudes and continually watching violent media. Additionally, children become desensitized to violence of all kinds through repeated exposure.
  • Sex: Eighteen studies show that there is double the risk for early sexual intercourse when witnessing sexual content.
  • Drugs and alcohol: Studies directly link advertising to increased and early use.
  • Obesity: This is a double-edged sword: children are repeatedly exposed to advertisements for nutritionally void food and their sedentary screen time all but eliminates physical activity. The Centers for Disease Controls states: “One-fourth of children in America spend four hours or more watching television daily and only 27 percent of students in grades 9 through 12 engage in moderate physical activity at least 30 minutes a day on five or more days of the week.”
  • Other concerns: Other studies have linked high screen time to increased ADHD-like behaviors and delayed language in infants younger than two years old who are exposed to screens.

Of course, television itself is not inherently evil; there are many educational and worthwhile shows, such as the entire PBS lineup. But, like anything, we as parents must use our good judgment and create boundaries for our children to both protect them and to help them flourish.


Here are a couple suggestions to help your family be thoughtfully intentional about their screen time:

  • Put your family on a TV diet: Select one or two shows a week, watch it/them with your child(ren), and afterwards, discuss the show together.
  • Turn on the television at the beginning of the show and then turn it off once it ends, no longer allowing it to be on indefinitely.
  • Brainstorm other activities your family would like to do to fill all of your newfound time.


Share laughter and create memories the traditional way
Share laughter and create memories the traditional way



As parents, we must also look at ourselves as we model behaviors for our children. While we may or may not watch excessive amounts of television, our Achilles’ heel may likely be our smart phones or computers, to which many are glued practically around the clock.

Radesky, et al wrote an article entitled “Patterns of Mobile Devise Use by Caregivers and Children During Meals in Fast Food Restaurants”. The authors observed 55 caregivers eating with one or more children in fast food restaurants. Of these, 40 caregivers used handheld devices during the meal. The children responded by increasing their attention-getting behaviors to which the caregivers often responded in an insensitive manner. Sound familiar?

More is caught than taught: what messages do our children catch through our constantly distracted behaviors? That they are a nuisance or less important than our work or social network? These are never messages we would intentionally convey, so our behaviors merit a closer look.

The upside to less screen time – as has been documented by many families on any number of blogs – is more peace, less anxiety, more time to accomplish all those projects you’ve wanted to get to, more time for reading, taking a walk, visiting the farmer’s market … the options are endless!

Ultimately, there is more life to be lived away from the television, and your family will thrive when they are living it.



1. Strasburger, V.C., Donnerstein, E., Bushman, B. (2014). Why is it so hard to believe that media influence children and adolescents? Pediatrics, 133(4): 571-573.

2. Radesky, J., (2014) Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Pediatrics, 133(4): e843-e849.