An Essay on Television & Cognitive Development

The main thrust of this essay is to explore the notion that excessive television viewing during the early stages of child development impacts the cognitive development of children.
The conventional wisdom suggests that excessive television does have a negative effect on the cognitive development of children and the axiom is at least somewhat culpable for the decline in the younger generation’s school performance (Munasib & Bhattacharya, 2010).

Some of the argument for a correlation between excessive television and poor cognitive development stems from negative statistical associations that plainly link poor achievement in school to heavy television viewers. In simpler terms, people who watch a lot television achieve less academically (Anderson & Collins, 1988).

However, through my research I’ve encountered compelling arguments and enlightening empirical data from both sides.

A few assertions countering the argument for a correlation between excessive television and poor cognitive development are as follows:

(1) There is no evidence that children are overstimulated by television because of factors like leaving the room and looking away.

(2) There is little evidence that television detrimentally affects cognitive development or interrupts cognitive activities because homework that may be done during television viewing has not been found to be of a lesser quality than homework completed away from a television.

(3) Television viewing may actually increase one’s attention span, and the most poignant assertion of all,

(4) “There is no evidence that television asymmetrically influences brain development.” (Anderson & Collins, 1988).

With the last assertion taken into account, it is worth noting that the psychologists who made that claim simultaneously believe there is no way, currently, to unequivocally prove that television viewing has no major impact on cognitive development.

One particular study I came across examined the hypothesis that background television negatively impacts play behavior of very young children and thus alters their cognitive development. The television programming imperative to the study was adult in nature, or in other words, incomprehensible to young children. As part of a naturalistic observation, the study involved videotaping 2-year-olds in their homes. The study found that the children played with their toys about one-third of the time when television was playing in the background. This finding is particularly troubling if one subscribes to the conventional view on child development which asserts that play has a positive role to play in terms of a child’s cognitive and social development (Schmidt, Pempek, Kirkorian & Lund, 2008).

One theory that seems to hold water (even amongst psychologists who’ve concluded that television really has no substantial impact on cognitive development) is the probability that excessive or high levels of television viewing among very young children results in poor attention capabilities. A longitudinal study found that children between the ages of 1 and 3 who watched television for 7 hours or more per day showed attention problems at age 7. As a result, the psychologists concluded that moderate television viewing by young children is harmless (Foster & Watkins, 2010).

Notwithstanding what seems like a credible conclusion on the matter, the study just referenced above has its limitations.

Most critical to the validity of the study is the fact that the data utilized to draw a conclusion was maternally reported. This means that the findings relied solely upon the honestly and accuracy of the mothers who participated in the study, and it is quite possible that some mothers may have under-reported the amount of television their children watched for fear of embarrassment.

Also, the effects of television may rely on more than just the amount watched. Factors such as content that is watched and parental co-viewing are likely as important as how much television is actually viewed. One aspect of a theoretical position submitted by the psychologists presented the idea that television may have negative effects on children who watch a lot of a certain kind of television programming (Foster & Watkins, 2010).

In conclusion, although I agree with the authors/psychologists who suggest that analysis on the subject of television viewing and its effects on cognitive development is still in the early stages, I believe there is at least some degree of credibility to the argument that says excessive television viewing can potentially limit a child’s attention capabilities and hinder one’s cognitive development, and as a result, the cognitive loss certainly spurs implications about a child’s future achievements, aspirations and ability to function as a cooperative and contributing member of society.

Anderson, D. R., & Collins, P. A. (1988). The impact on children’s education: Television’s influence on cognitive development. working paper no. 2. Massachusetts Univ., Amherst. Dept. of Psychology, 98. doi: ED295271

Foster, E. M., & Watkins, S. (2010). The value of reanalysis: Tv viewing and attention problems. Child Development, 81(1), 368-375. doi: 47898690
Munasib, A., & Bhattacharya, S. (2010). Is the “idiot’s box” raising idiocy? early and middle childhood television watching and child cognitive outcome. Economics of Education Review, 29(5), 873-883. doi: EJ894576

Schmidt, M. E., Pempek, T. A., Kirkorian, H. L., & Lund, A. (2008). The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. Child Development, 79(4), 1137-1151. doi: EJ802187

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