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TVs, Brains, and Bodies

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Ask a child how much TV is enough and you will hear something like, "Just another five minutes!" It seems that "screens" have become a large part of our lives.

Ask a child how much TV is enough and you will hear something like, “Just another five minutes!”

It seems that “screens” have become a large part of our lives. From car DVD players, to portable video games, to home games, to computers, it is possible to use a screen almost all day. Our kids certainly enjoy using them, but is this a case of too much of a good thing?

The answer is a resounding “Yes” on many levels. TV has long been a concern for parents and doctors. Research has shown that a child burns even fewer calories while watching television than when just sitting quietly. The average Canadian child watches 15.5 hours of TV each week and spends another five hours per week playing video games and surfing the Internet. In one year, the average child spends 900 hours in school and nearly 1,023 hours in front of a TV. Combine this inactivity with the common habit of eating in front of the TV, and you have two major factors in the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

Poor Self-Esteem

With inactivity and obesity come a poor body image and declining self-confidence. The inactive child misses out on the “feel good” confidence boosting natural opiates that are released as a part of being active and getting fresh air. Ironically, much of the television content contains images of active, healthy role models designed to inspire the viewer. However, by comparison the viewer doesn’t measure up, and a vicious cycle begins.

he connection between mind and body has long been established with poor physical health having an impact on the mind and emotional stress having a damaging effect on the body.

TV–A Sleeping Pill for the Brain

The front part of our brain (the frontal cortex) is responsible for both critical problem solving and artistic imagination. It is this part of the brain that our children use for developing self-reflection and for deciding appropriate behaviours. As this part of the brain develops, our children become more able to determine what is in their best interest, how to rationalize, and how to solve problems. Research shows that this part of the brain is not used while watching television.

Not using the discerning part of the brain has a two-fold impact. Firstly, maturity and development are slowed because this part of the brain is not being stimulated enough to develop properly. Secondly, the content of the television show or the video game is passively accepted. The children are literally being programmed by what they are watching. Sixty percent of television advertising geared toward children is related to fast foods that are high in taste appeal and low in nutritional quality.

Television and video games are appealing because the excitement is easy, fast, and continuous. The instantly gratifying thrill of the video game or TV program is followed by a lull or depression when the game is turned off. Like the peak and valley of eating refined flour or sugar, our children crave to be back in front of the stimulus. Emotionally, the world around them can pale in comparison to the virtual world of television and the game. This feeds a negative cycle and can lead to children withdrawing into themselves instead of being active participants in the family, school, and community.

Completely eliminating your child’s use of screens is perhaps too optimistic, but the prudent use of them is strongly encouraged. The following are some helpful tips:

  • Remove TVs and computers from all bedrooms
  • Create a plan that limits the usage and monitor the content of the games and programs your child watches (e.g., 30 minutes of screens on weekdays and 60 minutes on weekends will teach them moderation).
  • Find out what aspects of the TV programs and video games your child finds interesting and look for active games or books to use as substitutes. Be a good example, and be an active parent.
  • Discuss with your children the interesting adventures you had throughout your day. Not only will you be bonding with your kids, but you will also contribute to the expansion of their minds (literally) and they’ll be more willing to tell you about their day.
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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD