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Pull The Plug!

By Diane Meyer, DC

Since the 1950’s, sitting in front of the television for relaxation, entertainment, learning, and for just something to do, has been an integral part of family life. With the introduction of TV into the fabric of family homes, research has been mounting in support of some of its negative impacts. Implicated in childhood obesity, behavioural and sleep disturbances, seizures, desensitization, violence, decreased learning, sedentary lifestyles, learning disabilities and poor food choices, television has become more than a simple source of distraction.1

Chiropractors worldwide concern themselves with the enhancement, optimization and healthy development of the body through its nervous system. Awareness is the key in being able to educate Chiropractors and patients about the potential damaging effects induced by television viewing.

Current Trends

The numbers are astonishing! The amount of television the average American watches is 3–4 hours per day.2 By the age of 75, a full 9 years will have been spent watching TV.3,1 The amount of TV a one-year-old child watches is one hour per day, and ages 2–17 is 2.8 hours per day.4 This is, in spite of the American Pediatric Association’s recommendations that children under the age of 2 should not view television and that viewing for older children should be limited to 1–2 hours of media viewing (this includes video games).5

Television and the Brain

The physiological process the brain undergoes while viewing TV, is perhaps a key to its harmful effects.

Television images are created by a cathode ray gun scanner, which activates thousands of small phosphor dots that have been formed into 525 lines. The scanner sweeps across the screen twice in one fiftieth of a second. The eye receives each dot and transmits this information to the brain, which fills in the dots of the pattern. It becomes a type of unconscious connect-the-dots. However, this high frequency of 50 waves of dots every second puts a strain on the visual system because the eye and the conscious brain can only record visual stimuli at 20 impulses or less, per second. As the eyes and brain attempt to keep up with the pace of the images, our visual focus is “glued” to the screen.6

Reeves and Thorson explained the hypnotic state of television by our natural “orientating response”. This response occurs after perceiving a new auditory or visual stimulus and consists of blood vessel dilation to the brain, a decrease in heart rate, and constriction of blood to the major muscle groups. The body becomes still and quiet while the brain gathers information. This orientating response appears to be activated by the countless cuts, zooms, pans, sounds and actions of television, as many as 1 per second. (sciam) These rapid movements cause our attention to be intensely attracted to the screen in an almost hypnotic state that most viewers, find difficult to detach from.7

Thus the “addictive” cycle begins. People report a sense of relaxation and passivity while viewing, however once off; the feeling of relaxation ends while the feeling of passivity and lowered alertness continues.8 In essence, during watching the viewer is not actually reacting or focusing. This can explain why the person is left exhausted and often has difficulty in recalling what was viewed once the television is turned off.

High frequency television waves also appear to have an effect on brainwave activity. Within 30 seconds of watching TV, repeated EEG experiments observed brainwave patterns to change from beta waves (alert and conscious) to alpha waves (unfocused—a type of subconscious day dreaming usually occurring only when the eyes are shut).9 Another brainwave EEG study found that a person watching TV for only a few minutes had the same brainwave activity as someone who is subjected to 96 hours of sensory deprivation! 10(p46)

In addition, there have also been reports on the potential deadly effects of viewing. In 1997, 700 Japanese children were rushed to hospital suffering from optically induced epileptic seizures after watching a Pokemon video game. The high frequency of red/blue flashes of color may have induced these seizures. Video game manufacturers now issue warning labels on some video games. Despite this, the popularity of these games still increases.11

Television and Development

There is discussion concerning the theory that what is being watched is not as important, as the act of watching itself. In the book “Who’s bringing them up?” Martin Large describes television as being damaging to children’s development independent of content. He cites the following developmental effects; artificial light on children’s eyes, effects on the senses and brain, sleeplessness, headaches, bad dreams, perceptual disorders, poor concentration, hyperactivity, language development, and nervous problems.12 A new study from Seattle Children’s’ Hospital and Regional Medical Center supports Large’s findings by showing that for every hour per day a toddler watches television they are 10% more likely to develop an attention disorder.13

Television and Behavior

One Canadian study observed the effects of when television was introduced into a no-TV community. Before television, the children of that community scored higher on reading tests, imagination and creativity than TV viewing children. After the introduction of television, the children fared only as well as their TV viewing comparison group. As well, their aggressive behaviour increased, beliefs about boys and girls’ performance became more stereotypical, and participation in community activities decreased. As for the adults, TV was found to decrease creativity and problem solving abilities.14

A study in Pediatrics involving 888 grade 2 and 3 students observed that along with increased television viewing there was an increased risk of; withdrawal, social problems, thought problems, attention issues, delinquent behaviour, and aggressive behaviour. It was also noted that the amount of television viewing was increased in children who are male, are older, and have social and academic issues.15 This predisposes a certain group of children to being more exposed to television, and are therefore at a greater risk of damage. Today’s average youth spends more time watching TV (1,023 hours) than at school (900 hours), and has seen 200,000 acts of violence by the age of 18.16,17 What kind of impact can this have on children and can it impact adult behavior?

What about the Violence?

Research has shown that the emotional response to implied violence is actually greater than to actual scenes of violence.18 The implication of this for even G-rated movies is obvious. Could this be because today’s children are already desensitized to violence? Or does the mind, left to fill in the blanks for the implied violence, come up with more emotionally charged mental images?

One study attempted to analyze the desensitization of children and adults while watching TV violence. They found that children and adult males had a decreased emotional response with a violent program when previously exposed to a violent scene.19 This may indicate a protective mental response or it may mean that with each exposure to violence our emotional response is lessened. It is also important to assess whether or not exposure to TV violence has a prolonged effect into adulthood. In a 2003 study, children ages 6–10 were followed for a 15-year period and were assessed whether or not there was a relationship between viewing as a child and adult aggressive behaviour. The results clearly indicated, “childhood exposure to TV media violence predicts young adult aggressive behaviour”. It was also shown that those children who identified with the violent characters and who perceived TV violence as realistic, were more likely to be aggressive in adulthood.20

An alternative perspective regarding television is not the possible behaviour it produces, but the behaviour that it does not produce. Just observe a child sitting in front of the television. What you will observe is a blank stare, with little blinking. If you gently try to get the attention of the child you may find that the child appears to have difficulty “coming out of ” the gaze. The vibrant, energetic and playful child is not found in a TV viewer. It seems as if the child is somehow subdued or inhibited. When observing adults viewing TV, the same behaviour is found. It is as if the thinking, feeling and interactive human is temporarily suspended; but gone where?