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Back in the late 1800s, a pair of brothers put together the first motion picture. Pioneers in photography, they stitched sequential photographs together to create a short, soundless clip of a train chugging into the station. They set up a projector to put their masterpiece on display and invited an audience.

Things didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t the motion picture that was flawed – that went off without a hitch. It was the audience’s reaction that threw them for a loop. People didn’t clap. There were no cheers, no hoorahs. The patrons of the first movie in history didn’t stand up and applaud, or marvel at this wonderful new application of technology.

Instead they screamed. They ran from the theatre in fright and ducked under their seats. They trampled each other on the way out the door. They covered their eyes and flailed their arms. Having never seen a motion picture before, their brains had no idea what to make of the sensory signals they were receiving. In their mind, they were about to be run over by a train. So they ran for their lives.

Fast forward more than 100 years, and TV has become such an intricate part of our lives that we barely think anymore about how it might be affecting us. We certainly don’t lose our minds in hysteria over every car chase or scary scene on TV. Yet if you ever start to question whether television and movies are influencing you or whether they are shaping your child’s brain, just recall the story of the first ever motion picture. The answer to this debate has been with us from the very beginning.

The brain does not distinguish between a lived image and an imagined one.”
– Peter Guber, CEO of Mandalay Entertainment

Our brains absorb information and experiences from the world around us, and it doesn’t much matter where that input is coming from. fMRI brain scans have shown that even today, watching a movie plays the brain like a puppeteer. When we’re attuned and into the movie, there’s little discernible difference in brain activity between watching a scene on TV and witnessing such events in real life. (Hasson et al., 2004) Once it reaches the brain, all external stimuli can affect us just the same.

This is why the very first movie viewers reacted the way they did. The signals coming into their brain and the resulting emotions this produced were no different from an actual life-or-death experience. People today wouldn’t make such a mistake, because we’ve learned to suppress these signals. Our prefrontal cortex, the area that’s responsible for policing and interpreting the activity in other areas of the brain, has grown wise and accustomed to television’s tricks. So it mutes these signals, telling us, “Hey, relax, it’s just a movie.” The best movies, of course, are able to break through this internal censorship, which is why you still cry during sad scenes or startle and jump in fright during a scary movie. This is also why video media has a more profound effect on children: with less developed cognitive reasoning areas, they are less adept at muting and regulating these signals. This is why it’s not a good idea to let a preschooler watch a slasher movie. For little kids, the movie watching experience is more like what the first viewers experienced and less like what you’re accustomed to.

That television affects us is not a matter up for debate. It’s a machine that practically uploads memories, messages, and experiences directly into our brain, which can be both good and bad depending on the context. And like any media device, it is altering the lives of children in many ways that aren’t so obvious.

TV: The Message Machine

Because our brains show little distinction between a live experience and one witnessed on TV, media exposure can sculpt our brain in the same way actual experiences might. The social interactions we observe become part of our understanding of other people, and the ideas we’re repeatedly exposed to become etched into the neurocircuitry of our brain. Television’s images and ideas become embedded into our consciousness, influencing our perceptions and altering our understanding of the world. In one example of just how deeply embedded into our brain television is, people who watched black and white television as kids are more likely to dream in black and white than those who grew up with color TV. (Coffey, 2009)

The more we watch, the more deeply ingrained in the brain these images and messages become. “Research shows that while viewing television in small blocks of time may have little direct impact on behavior,” write Thompson and Hickey, though even this assertion is up for debate, “over a long period of time it seems to have a cumulative effect that does influence thinking and behavior.” (Thompson & Hickey, 2008, p. 94)

Children & Television

Whatever impact on children television might be having, one thing is for certain: Kids today seem to watch an awful lot of it.

It starts early. By the age of 3 or 4, some preschoolers are averaging as much as 4 to 6 hours a day watching television. (Thompson & Hickey, 2008, p. 94) By first grade, the average child in the U.S. will have viewed more than 6,000 hours of television. (Jones, 1991) Kids overall spend as much as 40 hours a week watching TV, and adults will spend between one-fourth and one-third of their lives in front of a television set. (Thompson & Hickey, 2008, p. 9) American children spend more time watching TV than they do any other activity except for sleeping. (Churnin, 2006)

Some other statistics on television viewing by children:

  • 25% of babies under the age of 2 now have televisions or video players in their bedrooms. (Walsh, 2007, p. 106) This, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children this age have no TV exposure at all.
  • One-third of kids live in a home where the TV is on all the time during waking hours. (Churnin, 2006)
  • A third of all kids between the ages of 6 months and 6 years had a TV in their bedroom. (Churnin, 2006)
  • In Mexico, more homes have television sets (93%) than sewage systems (90%), refrigerators (82%), or showers (65%). (The Week, 5-13-2011, p. 38)
  • TV reduces family conversations; 40% of Canadian parents couldn’t remember a time when they ate dinner with the TV off. It also reduces reading time, which 82% of grade school parents no longer encourage their kids to do at home. (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999)
  • A 2008 study by the American Medical Association Alliance found that over the past six years more than half (57%) of the movies geared toward children feature characters who smoke. (Bowles, 2008) A stricter policy has since reduced this slightly, to just under half.
  • A child who watches 2 hours of cartoons each day is exposed to nearly 10,000 violent episodes each year. (Grossman & DeGaetano, 1999)

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