Video and the Mind: How TV Affects Brain Development

December 7, 2011

At VideoMind, we're always thinking about video—and how media companies and brands use it to entertain, engage and communicate with audiences. But we're taking a step back to look at how video affects brain development and cognition—what happens behind the eyeballs, in other words. This is the first installment of an occasional series.

With three TV sets for every household, the prevalence of broadband Internet and the rise of tablets and smartphones, people are watching more video than ever before. Americans spend about 5.25 hours a day in front of the tube, according to Nielsen, and kids are in the same boat. The youngest demographic in particular, those ages 2 to 5, average about 32 hours a week, a stark jump from 1969, the year “Sesame Street” debuted, when pre-school aged kids were watching 27 hours of television a week.

Consider the fact that U.S. Internet users watched an average of 21.1 hours of online video in October, and the trend is clear: people are watching more TV, film and video content—on more devices—than ever before. This is great news for anyone looking to monetize content or market a good. But will this trend turn our brains to mush?

To look at the effects of television on the mind, we dug into "Television and the Brain: A Review," a 1994 report commissioned by the Children's Television Workshop and written by Katherine Fite, Ph.D. at the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. When Fite was working on the study in the mid-90s, she pointed out a number of misconceptions about TV's effects on developing minds, including:

  • Watching TV is a passive activity, which can lead to shortened attention spans and reduced creativity. 
  • TV has hypnotic and possibly addictive effects. 
  • Rapid pace of children's programming leads to frantic behavior and inattentiveness. 
  • TV viewing reduces eye movements in children, which can lead to retarded reading development. 
  • Watching TV can lead to cortical brain damage and induce epilepsy. 

Instead, Fite found that television viewing isn't as passive an activity as once thought. Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), Fite said brain waves when watching TV were similar to those during waking-state activities. Prior studies had claimed a prevalence of alpha rhythm— indicative of a resting, inattentive mental state, but she points faults in their methods, including placing sensors on a part of the head that's usually alpha dominant. In her study, she found brains also exhibited beta rhythm—indicative of an aroused, attentive mental state—when watching TV. The report quotes a study proclaiming “with respect to our brainwave patterns, television appears to be nothing special.”

Furthermore, brain activity suggests TV does not appear to be a "right-brain" activity. Instead, both cortical hemispheres are involved processing information when watching. (Right-hemisphere functions include approximate calculation and contextual language. The left hemisphere is more attuned to exact calculations, fact retrieval and literal language.)

Fite’s report is one of many that attempt to analyze TV’s effects on the brain—still today, there are conflicting ideas and reports on the topic matter. In 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report that suggested “at least some of the vilification of television is deserved,” while also acknowledging “some of the concerns and assumptions regarding television have received little empirical support.”

As with many things in science, it appears the jury is still out. As Fite noted back in 1994, “[n]o scientifically based evidence exists that indicates television viewing has any demonstrable positive or negative effects on brain organization, including its anatomical and physiological development.”

POST SCRIPT: For those of you who are fond of good quotes, Fite's study has some real gems. Among my favorites is the following:

Television is a source of constantly changing, multisensory and multidimensional stimulation that is embedded in a complex cultural, social, and cognitive environment for which there are no known correlates in nonhuman species.

Amen.

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