Preschool Children & the Effects of Fast-Paced TV? Dr. Robyn Silverman talks about a new study

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Isn’t it true? Most of us these days probably have the TV on at some point during the day—but we probably haven’t given too much thought about it’s effect on executive function. My preschooler, Tallie, loves her daily dose of Sesame Street in the morning. Most of the parents I know allow there children to watch a few educational shows during the day.  Do you?

This morning I was on The Today Show talking about a new study that came out today on screen time and preschoolers. The study, in the journal Pediatrics, provides additional evidence on something we already likely knew: Too much TV is not a good thing.  But it also provides more nuanced information that the type of TV your preschoolers are watching can also make a difference—especially with regard to executive function.

Method: Sixty 4-year-olds were randomly assigned to watch a fastpaced television cartoon or an educational cartoon or draw for 9 minutes. They were then given 4 tasks tapping executive function…Parents completed surveys regarding television viewing and child’s attention. (Lillard & Peterson, 2011)

What is Executive Function?

Executive function is the collective term for the process of being able to pay attention, make a plan, and actually carry out that plan until the goal of that activity is reached. It’s the function of the brain that allow us to be able to mentally play with ideas, be creative, stay focused and give a thoughtful response rather than one that is impulsive. Our ability to delay gratification also is reliant on executive function.

  • Executive function predicts school readiness as well as how kids are going to fair in math & reading
  • Executive function has been connected with empathy, impulse control, pro-social behavior, friendship skills, and emotional regulation.

What is fast paced TV?

In this study, they qualified pacing of shows by how often there was a complete scene change, for example from the kitchen to the bedroom. In fast paced programming such as Spongebob Squarepants, this happened, on average, 5-6 times per minute. The characters constantly appeared to be moving through space. During the educational programming, complete scene change happened, on average, 2 times per minute (every 34 seconds, on average). Think of the slower pace programming as giving the children a moment to think- where some of these programs, such as Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers; will actually ask for a response from the children; “Do you see the bird? What color is it?” And “wait:” for an answer.

The “overstimulation hypothesis” is based on the theory that the surreal pacing and sequencing of some shows might tax the brain or parts of it, leading to short-term (or long-term) deficits. Although this effect has been shown in observational studies of both infants and older children, it remains controversial. — Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH

How much TV are preschool children watching and how much should they be watching?

Various studies are showing that preschoolers are exposed, on average from 1.5 to 4 hours-sometimes more of screen time per day depending on their child care/home care situation. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no more that 2 hours of screen time of high quality programming per day not just because of brain development but also because of exposure to commercialism and what children aren’t doing while watching TV- like physical and creative activities.

Note: There are many reasons why TV can be negative for children- not just lags in school and brain development but also commercialism, being idle, not engaging with actual people, being creative, and getting physical!

How can parents build executive functioning in children?

  • Good old-fashioned play: Encourage imagination and creativity as they play with one another. Play games with them where they need to follow directions, remember rules (i.e. board games), recall hand movements (i.e. The Itsy Bitsy Spider), anticipate and wait for a collective movement (Ring Around the Rosie) as they work towards a goal.
  • Exercise, physical activities, or creative opportunities: Choose activities like martial arts, yoga, or dramatic arts, where children are following a curriculum, becoming aware of their bodies, and, have a focus on personal development.
  • Mindful games or activities: Go on a nature walk and ask your child to listen for specific sounds like a fire truck, a bird, or a cricket. Play “I spy” where your child must look for one object at the exclusion of others.  It’s about being mindful and blocking out other distractions.

How can you wean your children off too much TV?

  • Location, location, location: Make sure TV out of bedroom
  • Set limits: You can do this in a few ways.  You can; Limit the number of hours they are watching, specify a certain time of day or week they can watch, give them a certain number of shows they’re allowed to watch, of name the show titles they are permitted to watch.
  • Provide other fun alternatives: Bike riding, playground fun, game nights, family martial arts classes, reading books together, and taking trips to the zoo or museum can take the interest away from turning on the TV.
  • Convey that TV is a privilege: Children should earn it, not abuse it.
  • Be a great role model: If you want your children to watch less TV, commit to watching less TV yourself.

Conclusion:

This is only one study.  It had a fairly small sample size of only 60 non-diverse children at a specific age who were only exposed to high paced or educational TV for 9 minutes.  The researchers only looked at the immediate impact of the exposure. However, the study joins many others that are telling us the same thing.  We need to limit the amount of TV our children consume on a daily basis.  And, now we also know, that the kind of programming they watch may also have an impact on their brain.  Yes, this study only looked at the immediate effects– but if 9 minutes of fast-paced TV viewing can make a difference, it’s not hard to wonder what more, over a period of time can do. As parents, we need to keep a watchful eye on screen time exposure and make sure that how our children do spend there time, is generally healthy in the short run…and the long run.

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