How Does Television Affect the Brains of Young Children?

Children under age 5 are actively growing, learning and developing habits that will shape their mental, physical and emotional health. As a critical period to the child’s body and brain development, any undesirable influences can have lifelong mental and health effects on the child. Television viewing among kids has been linked to both positive and negative impacts on early brain development, behavior and health.

The Growing Brain

Most young children plug into the world of television long before they start school 3. The early childhood period is a critical time for brain development. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a child's brain undergoes immense growth during the first three years of life, with the brain’s mass tripling in just the first 12 months. The stimuli experienced during this period have significant effects on the child’s brain development. For infants and toddlers, images on television screens differ significantly from those in the real world 4. The inability of the child to perceive the difference between the two worlds can have lasting effects on vital functions, including language development, vision and memory, cognitive development and attention.

Language Development

Young children learn most efficiently from interacting with other people. The parent-baby relationship is crucial for social interactions and mental stimulation. With a television, this relationship is profoundly affected because of reduced parent-child interactions and engagement. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a toddler’s brain is genetically equipped to learn from social interactions with caregivers and other children. Reduced parent-child relationship often contributes to less conversational interactions between the parents and children, something that can slow the acquisition of language skills and cues.

Cognitive Development

High levels of television consumption during the early childhood period can have modest to adverse effects on subsequent cognitive development of kids. Scientists suggest that the visual and auditory output from television negatively affects the levels of attention, creativity, problem-solving skills and critical thinking skills of young children 3. Watching non-educational programs on television can get in the way of playing, exploring and interacting with parents and other children, thus undermining learning and academic engagement 3. Too much screen time for kids can interfere with vital activities, such as:

  • reading
  • homework completion
  • attention
  • sleep
  • eating habits -- which can then affect your child’s cognitive outcomes

Vision and Memory

Even though television watching is a passive activity, understanding the messages portrayed require particular skills, including listening, memory and visual skills. In the first three years of life, young children cannot fully comprehend such messages since many of these skills are only beginning to develop. The visual language used on television screens is often too difficult for kids to decode, and hence the level of information retention is called into question.

Social Skills

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that kids under age 2 should not watch TV because of their inability to understand the existing relationship between television and reality as portrayed 2. It further recommends that well-designed programs and age-appropriate viewing thereafter can help teach children literacy skills, language skills, problem solving and appropriate social behavior. Preschoolers learn more from educational TV when they watch such programs in the company of an adult than if do it alone.