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The Effect of Television in the Early Years
Apr 1, 2004

Among the greatest inventions of the twentieth century are devices of mass communications. Every invention can have either a positive or a negative effect, depending on how it is used. TV is one of these inventions that is found in the home.

The history of family life can be divided into two phases: “before TV” and “after TV.” Its affects on the whole family are so immense that they are outside the scope of this article. Instead, we will concentrate on the affects of television on children, and especially on children under the age of 3.

During our interviews with parents, almost all of them had one question: “What is the effect of television on our child?” The importance of this question can be better understood after we have studied the effects of television on our children. The effects of TV depend on how much the children watch TV, their personality, whether they watch alone or with adults, and whether their parents talk to them about what they have watched. Therefore, it would not be true to say that television is absolutely harmful or beneficial. If the necessary precautions are taken, it can be a useful source for both the child's educational and social development, while, on the other hand, it can have very harmful and lasting effects on children if not properly monitored and if the child is left to decide when, how much and which TV programs to watch. The effects also vary according to the child's age. This magic box has different effects on children of different age groups.

The worst, and unfortunately permanent, effects of television on children occur during the 0-3 age group. This is because some of the psycho-social attributes that are acquired in these years persist in a person's character throughout life. Any problem that originates from this period will affect the rest of a person’s life.

The Effects of Television on the 0-3 Age Group

During this period some parents do not (or cannot) spend enough time with their children for a variety of reasons, and they leave their child alone with the television. Some of the reasons for a lack of time being devoted to the child may be socio-economic factors, the life-style of a working mother, problems between the parents themselves, the necessity of housework, parents working additional jobs, a chronic illness in the family, psychiatric problems of the parents, the child being the product of an unwanted pregnancy, the child’s physical illness, or dozens of other reasons – all of these can affect family life. Because of these, intentionally or not, some parents often cannot pay enough attention to their child; the only thing they are able to do being to keep up physical maintenance (i.e., feeding the child and keeping him or her clean). In these cases, TV comes in and fulfills the role of the parents, and the child ends up spending too much time in front of the television.

Experiencing full emotional sensations and the complete attention of the parents sets the groundwork in the first three years of life for a strong and healthy psychological make-up. Physical contact, talking to the child, making him or her feel that he or she is loved, playing with the child, spending time with the child all have a positive effect on the development of the psycho-social side of the child. Spending time with a baby prevents him or her from becoming alienated in relationships with other people and helps him or her to recognize the social environment, starting with the parents. Along with this relationship, a close tie between the child and the mother develops. This relationship starts in the mother’s womb and continues during infancy. The child begins to be able to communicate and express his or her needs. As time goes on, the child starts to be able to establish a dialog with other people.

Since the basic foundation of communication is speech, children have to learn how to talk. In order to be loved by people, they have to understand people and respond to emotional stimulation. Children need encouragement in order to socialize and develop communication, especially from those who are in charge of the upbringing. This encouragement and approval, attention to the child’s needs (food, clothing, hygiene, safety, etc), paying attention to the child’s problems, spending time with the child, kissing, caressing, talking and playing with the child all go towards helping the child feel that he or she is loved; these constitute an encouragement for the bio-psycho-social development of the child.

The reason we mention all these is so that we can better understand the television-child relationship. When the child is left for a long time in front of a device that does not respond to his or her words, looks and smiles – a device devoid of sensual and social stimulants, without emotion - and when the child is deprived of physical closeness to the person with whom he or she has established close ties - problems will occur as time passes. Although television provides sounds and images, the child is not yet of an age to interpret, accept and benefit from these. The problems developed here will appear later in the form of an incompleteness or inadequateness in the socialization, individualization and the psycho-social aspects of this person.

Why is TV more harmful for children? The child will not have friends or a social environment to make up for the social and sensual incompleteness mentioned above. He or she does not play a role in an interchange, and the child does not have a chance to contribute. Psycho-motor and psycho-social sufficiency has not had a chance to develop and he or she does not have an alternative environment in which to develop.

If a child is less than 3 years old and stays too long (how long changes from child to child, but generally for more than an hour) in front of a television, and particularly if the parents have any of the problems mentioned above that prevent them from spending more time with the child, then some insufficiency and delay can be witnessed in the child’s psycho-social functions. These functions are those that are necessary for the development of social improvement (sensual interaction and responsiveness, adaptation to the social environment, taking an interest in people, showing sympathy to others, paying attention to other children of the same age, etc) and communication (talking, meaningful gestures and mimicry, spelling words out by syllables, perception, making sounds, forming sentences, etc). If such conditions occur, a child psychiatric must also investigate what other reasons may have caused such conditions. The replacement of time that should be spent with other people with time spent before the television has very serious drawbacks.

If the children stay too long in front of the television during this period, some psychiatric abnormalities may develop. The child may show symptoms of indifference to his or her surrounding, for example, he or she may not look around when called, the child may avoid making eye contact, or show indifference to other people and children of the same age, the child may experience difficulties in taking part in emotional or social communication, he or she may try to stay on his or her own, or may display repetitive behavior, like turning around or rocking back and forth, the child may become obsessed with objects, he or she may be slow to speak and construct sentences, or may display problems in establishing dialogue, or the child may be unable to respond sentimentally. Therefore, in order to prevent excesses, it would be appropriate for the parents to put a limit on television for the benefit of normal psycho-motor and psycho-social development in the child.

At the same time, it would be appropriate for both the father and the mother to spend as much time as possible out of their normal daily life with the child, playing with him or her, speaking to the child, showing the child that he or she is loved, showing an affinity with him or her, taking the child out, paying attention to his or her physical needs, paying attention to his or her normal growth stages, laying the ground for communication with other children, sparing some time only to be with the child, telling him or her stories. In short, parents do not have to ban television watching completely for their children, but the appropriate thing for the good of the child is to restrict and balance it with other activities.