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Children brought up in the Television Age

Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.

If Mencius was born in the later half of this century in China, he is likely to have grown up in front of the television. His mother would also not have immediately realized the long-term adverse effects of the television and may not have kept him away from it. Little Mencius would have therefore lost the opportunity to experience childhood games, sports, stories, language learning and the curiosity of a normal child, and his brain may have been underdeveloped. When he grows up, he may not have depth of observation and contemplation, nor possess high moral fibre and a sense of responsibility. He may then not have made a significant impact on the Chinese culture.

If the television had appeared 500 years earlier in Europe, we would not have the opportunity today to listen to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, or recent music prodigies, nor appreciate the art and inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci. If the television had appeared very early in Chinese civilization, Li Bai and Du Pu might not have written poetry, there might not be many literary works from China, and there might not even be a Chinese culture.

If you think that the above scenarios are exaggerations, let us look at the American culture, education, morality and society forty years after television had become popular in America. In America, preschool kids watch an average of 30 hours of television every week. Adults watch an average of four hours of television; this means that apart from sleep, work and schooling, watching television takes up the bulk of an adult’s time. Before a child goes to school, he/she would have watched between 5000 to 8000 hours of television; by the time he/she goes to high school, the amount of time spent watching television would have exceeded the time spent in school. What is the influence of television on children, adolescents, and adults? According to a report by the US education department, 70 million young adults are functionally illiterate. Many American companies have found that many high school graduates cannot read, count, or think. A large company, Motorola Inc, discovered that among the nation’s job applicants, 80% did not pass grade 7 English and Grade 5 mathematics. In another report, it was documented that among 17-year-olds, only 7% have the necessary background to enter the science faculty at the universities. In an international mathematics and science competition, thirteen-year-old Americans scored the lowest among twelve countries.

Since the 1960s, mathematics teachers in America have found that the learning ability of students have deteriorated year by year, and national test scores have fallen yearly too. Scientists doing most advanced research lament that it is not easy to find successors. Native students form the minority among graduate students studying in America. A professor with over 30 years of research experience used to return to his alma mata yearly between 1963 to 1973 to conduct annual lectures for undergraduate students. He found no major difference in students’ responses every year until 1973, when he discovered a significant decrease in students’ comprehension ability. The students were given different teaching material and no longer solved physics problems; instead, they watched commercial television programmes and made factory visits. When asked for the rationale behind these changes in teaching approach, the professor replied, “Since students can no longer handle the traditional physics curriculum, we have to dilute the curriculum and use television programmes and factory visits as teaching materials.”

Many people blame the failure of the American education system on the school and the family, but these are not the ultimate reasons. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning conducted a survey in 1991 among 7 thousand kindergarten teachers to find out more about the following attributes of kindergarten children: their health, ability to cope, emotional maturity, language, knowledge, and moral views. Their results showed that 35% of kids did not possess the prerequisites to attend kindergarten. These kids came from cities and towns of various sizes, and different economic conditions, cultural background, etc. These 5-year-old kids did not know their full names and address and were unable to differentiate colors or use the pencil. They had limited spoken skills, short attention spans, and no confidence in expressing themselves. They were not used to taking instructions, and did not know how to take turns to share a table and draw etc. These children were of normal intelligence but lacked experiences in life.

The average weight of a newborn child’s brain is about 330 grams, about a quarter the weight of an adult’s brain. The child’s brain will have grown three times by the age of two and will be about 90% of the size of an adult’s brain by the time he/she is seven years of age. Every experiment conducted on animals has shown that the brain’s development is dependent on the experiences it receives. Professor Marian Diamond of the University of California, Berkeley used two groups of mice as subjects, and found that the brains of one group of mice which had lived in an enhanced environment (bigger cage, greater variety of toys and playmates) were 11% larger than that of another group of mice that had lived in an impoverished environment. If another group of mice were placed in the enhanced environment but were only allowed to watch and not participate in the activities of mice in the enhanced environment, their brain sizes were not different from that of the mice in the impoverished environment. Mice living in the wild had the richest environment and had the best developed brains.

Children’s brains receive fewer stimulation when they passively watch television programmes rather than actively participate in activities. Watching television itself numbs the nerves and senses. Just like taking drugs, one can get addicted to watching television. When watching television, the brain generates Alpha waves, which are slower than the Beta waves. In particular, only the right brain is involved in processing the images and the emotional contents; the left brain, which performs the function of thinking and analysis, is dormant. Little wonder that advertising agents exploit this weakness to promote their products, since they do not need to use much logic and only need vivid imagery and short phrases to persuade the viewers. Both children and adults may be led to purchase these products, as if hypnotized. Because of advertisements, Americans like to take high sugar, and high cholesterol junk food; as a result, obesity is a common ailment. The images on television flash at the rate of 60 to 80 times per second, far exceeding the speed of our sight which can sense up to 20 times per second. At the same time, because these light radiations are direct rays (not reflected rays which our eyes are accustomed to), our eyeballs will naturally stop responding. Since focusing relies on the movement of the eyeballs, watching television definitely causes damage to the vision. Besides the eyes, other sensory organs functions may also decline. It has been reported that after watching several minutes of television, the responses of the brain are similar to that of people who have been in an environment where their senses have been deprived of stimulation for 96 hours. In Germany, some hospitals have begun to have departments that treat children who have been harmed by watching television. Many parents may also not be aware that the television is related to many of the ailments faced by their children: restless sleep, indigestion, irregular heartbeat, bad temper, exhaustion, lack of interest in work and play, drug abuse, drinking liquor, lack of compassion, wanton sex, learning difficulties, slow limb movement, poor concentration, etc. In Europe, some parents have recognized this problem and have either slowly restricted the television to their children, or immediately banned the television. Observation of the television watching habits of family members is an important first step.

The Waldorf educational system started by Dr. Steiner has always advocated that children not watch television. Dr. Steiner suggests that children may be permitted to watch selected television programmes only after the age of fourteen. Watching television greatly reduces children’s imagination, because children rely on playing imaginative games and listening to stories to develop their imagination. At the same time, children’s physical activities will help promote their determination; should they lack such activities, they may grow up as adolescents without a sense of purpose in life and without having much perseverance in the things they do.

The popularity of television in Taiwan has trailed America by twenty years, and the associated problems will also appear later. However, given awareness of these problems, it is not too late for parents and teachers to take remedial actions.



Endangered Mind, by Jane M. Healy Ph. L. 1991

How Television Poisons Children Minds by Miles

Everett, Ph. L. 1997

The Plug-In Drug : Television, Children and the Family, by Marie Winn 1997