For most of us, hearing about different types of addiction is a common occurrence. Even more difficult to bear is that most of us are close to someone affected by an addiction. When addictions are related to the abuse of a substance such as alcohol, our understanding that there is a problem may be rooted in clear and serious signs of a life out of control. But what about an addiction related to something more subtle? Could a behavior as seemingly normal as watching television become an addiction? You bet it can!
I believe television can be a “drug” because it is literally a mind-altering experience. Like any drug, it has the potential to be used responsibly or abused. Did you know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television for children under two years of age, and no more than two hours of television per day for older children? Here’s why. It is not only because of the potential for inappropriate content. In fact, for young children especially, it is the incredible stimulation that TV provides that makes it so potentially damaging. All of the flashing bright colors, loud sounds, and frequent fragmentation of reality that television encompasses is far too much stimulation for most young minds to manage. At the same time, children are like a magnet for this type of gratification, and as most parents know, can become addicted to the neurological stimulation of television very quickly. Although some people have tried to justify overexposure to electronic media by claiming it makes children smarter, those theories are little more than rationalizations for indulging in what science indicates is bad for us.
What’s the effect of repeated exposure to television stimulation? Just like what happens when a person is exposed to any drug, repeated exposure to television has the effect of dulling a person’s senses. This is precisely what we as parents experience when we ask our kids to tear themselves away from the television and in return get a blank stare or grunt and shrug! With younger children, requiring them to make a transition away from a stimulation source to which they are “hooked” often results in an instant melt-down. Noticing your child’s ability to transition between watching television and attending to the environment around him or her is a good way to determine if she or he is over-stimulated, or even possibly addicted. Kids who are addicted to television care increasingly less about the content of what they are watching, and more about getting another “hit” of electronic stimulation. The brain is an organ that is unique in that it develops in response to its environment – and if you’re continually “blasting” a young, developing mind with rapid-fire images, you may be creating a mind that craves high level stimulation but lacks the ability to focus its attention – sound familiar?
Here’s What You Can Do:
1) Make television a family activity. Discuss what you and your child are watching together. Turn down or mute the volume during commercials to ensure you are sustaining social contact. And relate events on television shows to real events in the life of your family.
2) Limit television watching to a specific period of time and to specific times of the day. Kids do better when they are required to do things before they watch TV, such as getting dressed, teeth brushed, breakfast eaten, etc., before the television set goes on. Don’t let television become the constant background to family life. Turn the TV on to watch specific shows, and then turn it off when the show is over.
Discuss alternatives to television with your children. Kids do much better accepting that they can only watch a limited amount of TV when they know you are prepared to spend time playing a game, going to the park, or helping with homework instead. When we use TV to occupy our kids so we can get other things done, we are inadvertently becoming enablers of their addiction.
3) Not all television is created equal. Look for shows that are paced appropriately for children. There are great programs for kids that don’t rely on seizure-inducing graphics to keep their attention. Don’t be afraid to censor shows; if you start when children are young by simply saying, “this show isn’t good for your brain, and I’m proud of what a smart girl (or boy) you are,” you’ll get them on the right track.