7. Hindrance of Intellectual Development

On the basis of compelling evidence, the American Academy of Pediatricians reached the conclusion back in 2001 that too much video stimulation is harmful to children. The guidelines these doctors issued were far more restrictive than anyone outside the profession would have predicted. They said that children under two years of age should not watch any video (including television, videotapes, computer games, internet, DVDs), and that older children and teens should watch no more than one to two hours of quality video per day. The doctors' chief objection to television is that it stunts intellectual growth (1). A close connection between TV-viewing and academic performance has seemed probable ever since SAT scores dropped sharply in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. The students taking the SAT in those years were the first whose preschool lives had included television. In recent years, studies explicitly probing the relationship between TV-viewing and academic performance have found a substantial negative correlation (2). One recent study found that TV-viewing during childhood is a predictor of education attained by age 26, with more viewing associated with less education (3).

Television so radically restructures a child's experience that it probably undermines learning from many different directions. We will list six distinct threats that it poses to a child's intellectual growth.

1. Television steals time from educationally profitable activities. The activities that suffer decline while TV-viewing increases include homework, creative play, and recreational reading (4). It is fair to suppose that such activities outside school support both learning and performance within school.

2. Television causes attentional problems. Educators have long suspected that early TV-viewing accounts for the explosion in our generation of ADD and like disorders (5). In a landmark study in 2004, Christakis, Zimmerman, DiGiuseppe, and McCarty showed for the first time a definite linkage between TV-viewing and symptoms of ADD. Specifically, they found that TV-viewing at ages 1 and 3 separately increase the probability of attentional problems at age 7 (6). Although these findings have not gone unchallenged, they have received strong support from a stream of subsequent studies (7). Television's degrading effect upon attention might involve several different mechanisms. The memory of highly stimulating entertainment may simply interfere with concentration on humdrum tasks. Or the many attention-grabbing devices used by television may be a sort of mental candy fostering an addiction that leaves a child restless when the available stimulation is unsatisfying. Or the causal mechanism may be more fundamental, having to do with the development of brain function and structure.

3. TV-viewing disrupts sleep. Several studies confirm this generalization (8). Video games may be worse in this respect than television (9). Lack of good sleep must surely be detrimental to learning.

4. TV-viewing blocks retention of academic knowledge and skills. Although research has not yet addressed this issue, it seems likely that an evening of exciting television after a day in school will make the day's learning harder to recall. We may theorize that the brain organizes memory so that the most important things are most accessible, and that it attaches the most importance to whatever is most arresting and absorbing.

5. Television has an especially adverse effect upon the acquisition of language skills. The effect is probably mediated in at least five ways

  1. Television hinders language learning by reducing the child to a strictly passive role. Instead of engaging in conversation, a child in front of a television merely listens to somebody else talk. As a result, long hours before a television deprive a child of two kinds of experience essential to the development of language skill. First, the child has little opportunity to practice speaking. Second, in the absence of an adult responder, he receives no helpful feedback to his speech. Adults shape, correct, guide, and prompt a child's speech in ways that increase his ability to communicate effectively. By their choice of words, they also stretch a child's vocabulary. Video entertainment has no comparable value.
  2. A recent study shows that the effect of a child watching television or simply hearing it in the background is to greatly reduce his own vocalizations as well as his language interaction with adults. For each hour so spent, his vocalizations diminish 25-50% and the number of adult words he hears diminishes 75% (10).
  3. For a little child especially, television is like another adult in his life. But what the television says is completely irrelevant to the child's immediate world. Moreover, the television never responds appropriately to anything the child says. Being reared in front of a television is much like being reared by a schizophrenic mother.
  4. Much of television language is disjointed. No more than a few words are expended on any idea, and the main idea is rapidly changing, especially in a series of commercials. Thus, television language lacks the connectedness and extended development characteristic of so-called "linear thought." Linear thought employs logical or relational sequencing (relational sequencing is an order based on time, spatial location, or any relational dimension). It is the backbone of storytelling, persuasive argument, pedagogy, and every form of reasoning. To build a capacity for linear thought, children need to hear intelligent adult conversation. They also need to hear and read stories. Informational books and even informational videos, if they are tightly and logically constructed, are useful as well. Another tool for stretching a child's mental prowess is a sermon or Bible lesson. But television promotes a wholly different kind of thought, which might be called kaleidoscopic—thought consisting of a staccato flow of largely unrelated ideas based on momentary impressions and impulses. This kind of thinking cannot address any serious intellectual task. So, a child of television is severely handicapped.
  5. Because television is aimed at an audience filled with children and new speakers of English, the language it uses is exceedingly simple. Television English is always several notches below the English of educated adults. Hence, a child who has heard little else is ill-prepared to perform at a high level of language competence.
  6. As noted earlier, TV-viewing diminishes time devoted to reading.

6. There is mounting evidence that regular TV-viewing during the early years of life actually hinders normal brain development. Some research points to the prefrontal cortex as most vulnerable to impairment. This is the region of the brain responsible for planning and judgment. Video stimulation idles this part of the brain, preventing the constant use that is perhaps essential to normal growth (11). In other words, attention to television silences the kind of thinking and inner speech that normal brain development requires. The result is not damage, but underdevelopment.

8. Suppression of Better Activities

Before television, people spent their time at home in wholesome activities. Families worked together, played together, went on picnics or to the lake, took pleasure rides through the country, strolled through the woods and fields. At supper they gathered at the table and talked. On a stormy day or in a quiet evening family conversation might go on for hours.

People carried on many arts and crafts, from woodworking to needlework. When we look at things made generations ago by our ancestors, we are amazed at their skill and resourcefulness. Most people today are doing well if they can change a light bulb safely.

Every home in days past had musical instruments, cherished for the simple pleasure they could afford during hours of leisure. Most people liked to sing, and they knew a great variety of songs.

Until recently, most people pursued hobbies. When I was young, I collected stamps, coins, rocks, leaves, baseball cards, postcards, and books. A visit to the county fair always showed me that other people had better collections than I did. A popular hobby for men was gardening, often carried on with a passionate zeal to raise the best of a certain kind of flower or vegetable. Many women raised their work in the kitchen to hobby status. By devoting much time to preparing certain specialties, they won the acclaim of family and friends.

Before television, people liked to read. They liked to discuss issues. They freely exchanged views on the news of the day, on world events, politics, or religion. They liked to visit in each other's homes, and a welcome was so taken for granted that nobody believed in the necessity of prior notice. The car pulling in the driveway might be a relative from out-of-town. The knock on the door at any hour of the day or evening might be a neighbor just dropping in. Entertaining people by invitation was part of a normal week.

People carried on many useful activities in the community. Most were busy in their church as well as in civic organizations. There were service clubs, softball and bowling leagues, town bands and choirs, garden clubs, and political parties. Everybody participated in Fourth of July festivities, which included a parade so that half the town could watch the other half go by in costumes and smiles. Everybody kept Christmas and shared it to some extent with his neighbors. How many today know what it means to go caroling?

Most of these activities are now extinct. Why? One major reason is television.

9. Promotion of Youth Culture

Television is a powerful acculturating medium. In the 1950s it promoted traditional culture as it was known to the sophisticated upper middle class. This was a rather worldly culture, tolerant of vices such as smoking, drinking, and flirtation. But for the most part the culture mirrored on television was highly conservative. Cultural norms supported family life, church attendance, and patriotism.

Since the late 1960s, television has become an engine of another culture—the one we have elsewhere identified as youth culture. The main cohesive force in youth culture is rock music, a staple of modern television. The pervasive theme of youth culture is protest against traditional values. Lest anyone doubt that youth culture has taken over television, let him choose any talk show at random, and he will find that its main thrust is to overturn some belief or scruple once taken for granted.

10. Promotion of Materialism

Television is a commercial medium. It gives the viewer entertainment at a price—the price being to sit and watch an endless procession of mindless commercials. The evil in these commercials is twofold.

  1. They appeal to baser instincts. Many flaunt sexually provocative images, because these catch the eye. Many feature personalities who are rough and mean, because these are presumed to reflect the self-image of today's viewer. Many show people in drunken revelry, or seeking a good time in ways that are reckless and juvenile. Many tout the message, stated or implied, "You only go around once in life, so seek all the gusto you can."
  2. They teach an uncritical materialism. According to television, happiness requires the latest and finest of every kind of luxury. Young people hooked on this philosophy soon find themselves slaves to our consumer economy. Once they become saddled with debt and unfulfilled wants, they have no choice but to sell their souls to their careers. But careers today may cheat people out of rewarding lives—lives which keep fulfilling jobs in balance with time for faith and family.

11. Generation of Discontent and Escapism

A happy life according to television is life in the fast lane—a life shared with fashionable people, cradled in wealth, and devoted to self-indulgence. We no doubt can agree that this is not really the good life. But is it even possible? How many people live like most of the characters they see on television? Very few. Most people who watch television must be somewhat discontent with their lot.

Most women looking across the room at their husbands, and most men looking across the room at their wives, can see that life has not given them a partner with the glamour and charm of a media star. Perhaps here we have one reason the institution of marriage is crumbling.

The average viewer comparing himself with the television characters he admires will judge himself inferior in many other ways as well. He is poorer, less popular and influential, less witty and bold, and so on. The result? Fantasy becomes more satisfying than real life. It is far more pleasant to sit back in a lounge chair and pretend that Mr. Nobody (oneself) is Mr. Star (the figure on the screen) than to turn off the television and reckon with the truth that Mr. Nobody is nobody else.

Increasingly, people are distancing themselves from reality and gravitating into the world of entertainment, where imagination is truth. That is why people today are finding it harder to grapple in a sustained and effective way with problems, whether in their own lives or in the larger world. That is why it is becoming harder to convince students that it is important to know physics

and Shakespeare. That is why people are becoming extremely indifferent to spiritual matters, even to the eternal destiny of their immortal souls.


  1. ABCNEWS.com, "Study: Too Many Younger Kids Watch TV," http://www.abcnews.go.com/sections/living/DailyNews/kidtv010430.html.
  2. Jane M. Healy, "Understanding TV's Effects on the Developing Brain," reprint from AAP News, May 1998, 2.
  3. Robert J. Hancox, Barry J. Milne, and Richie Poulton, "Association of Television Viewing during Childhood with Poor Educational Achievement," Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 159 (July, 2005), 614-8.
  4. Elizabeth A. Vandewater, David S. Bickham, June H. Lee, Hope M. Cummings, Ellen A. Wartella, and Victoria J. Rideout, "When the Television Is Always On: Heavy Television Exposure and Young Children's Development," American Behavioral Scientist 48 (2005), 562-77; Elizabeth A. Vandewater, David S. Bickham, and June H. Lee, "Time Well Spent? Relating Television Use to Children's Free-Time Activities," Pediatrics 117 (February, 2006), e181-91.
  5. Healy, 2.
  6. Dimitri A. Christakis, Frederick J. Zimmerman, David L. DiGiuseppe, and Carolyn A. McCarty, "Early Television Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems in Children," Pediatrics 113 (April, 2004), 708-13.
  7. Carlin J. Miller, David J. Marks, Scott R. Miller, Olga G. Berwid, Elizabeth C. Kera, Amita Santra, and Jeffrey M. Halperin, "Brief Report: Television Viewing and Risk for Attention Problems in Preschool Children," Journal of Pediatric Psychology 32 (May, 2007), 448-52; Jeffrey G. Johnson, Patricia Cohen, Stephanie Kasen, and Judith S. Brook, "Extensive Television Viewing and the Development of Attention and Learning Difficulties during Adolescence," Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 161 (May, 2007), 480-6; Carl Erik Landhuis, Richie Poulton, David Welch, and Robert John Hancox, "Does Childhood Television Viewing Lead to Attention Problems in Adolescence? Results from a Prospective Longitudinal Study," Pediatrics 120 (September, 2007), 532-7; Frederick J. Zimmerman and Dimitri A. Christakis, "Associations between Content Types of Early Media Exposure and Subsequent Attentional Problems," Pediatrics 120 (November, 2007), 986-92.
  8. Jeffrey G. Johnson, Patricia Cohen, Stephanie Kasen, and Judith S. Brook, "Association between Television Viewing and Sleep Problems during Adolescence and Early Adulthood," Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 158 (June, 2004), 562-8; Darcy A. Thompson and Dimitri A. Christakis, "The Association between Television Viewing and Irregular Sleep Schedules among Children Less Than 3 Years of Age," Pediatrics 116 (October, 2005), 851-6; Markus Dworak, Thomas Schierl, Thomas Bruns, and Heiko Klaus Struder, "Impact of Singular Excessive Computer Game and Television Exposure on Sleep Patterns and Memory Performance of School-Aged Children," Pediatrics 120 (November, 2007), 978-85.
  9. Dworak et al., 978-85.
  10. Dimitri A. Christakis, Jill Gilkerson, Jeffrey A. Richards, Frederick J. Zimmerman, Michelle M. Garrison, Dongxin Xu, Sharmistha Gray, and Umit Yapanel, "Audible Television and Decreased Adult Words, Infant Vocalizations, and Conversational Turns, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 163 (June, 2009), 554-8.
  11. Healy, 1.