Powerpuff Girls vs. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: Media Impact on Early Childhood Development

Special post by Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and University of Washington professor of pediatrics

I provided a short talk on media's impact on early childhood development at the recent TEDxRainier 2011 event held on the University of Washington campus. My talk focused on how early TV exposure can inappropriately stimulate a child’s brain development.

I’m a researcher, a pediatrician and a parent, and exploring children’s early learning behavior has become a bit of an obsession for me. My interest in the topic and curiosity has led to some astounding findings about why early childhood experiences matter in the long-term health and productivity of people.

A child’s mind goes through tremendous growth in the first two years of life. Though we’re born with a lifetime’s supply of brain cells, the growth comes from the formation of synaptic connections. We progress rapidly, beginning with some 2,500 synapses per brain cell that multiply to 15,000 by the age of three. It’s the quality of those synaptic connections that makes the difference between a child developing attention problems later in life and a child who is able to take advantage of beneficial cognitive stimulation that enhances their ability to pay attention, learn and grow.

What’s fascinating is that there is ample evidence that even on the first day of a child’s life, there is a discernible physiological reaction to what babies are seeing, hearing and learning. Watch my talk, and you’ll see changes in breathing patterns when a newborn baby listens to Mozart versus Stravinsky.

After decades of study, we researchers know that too little stimulation is detrimental for brain development. But what about too much stimulation? Is it actually possible to over-stimulate the developing brain in ways that are not beneficial but harmful?

My research results include the following:

  • In 1970, the average age for children beginning to watch television was four years old. Today, it’s four months old. And by the age of five, the average child is watching 4.5 hours of TV a day, which accounts for 40 percent of a child’s waking hours.
  • Exposing young children to frenetic animation or fast-moving video conditions the mind to a reality that doesn’t exist. The more TV kids watch before the age of three, the more likely they are to have attention problems by the time they start school.
  • For each hour of TV watched before the age of three, the chances for attention problems increased by 10 percent. But for those children who had cognitive stimulation before the age of three (parents who read to them, took them to museums, or sang to them, for example), this reduced attention problems when they reached school age. Each hour spent on this type of activity helped to reduce attention problems by 30 percent.
  • Content is key. Educational, slower-paced programming (such as “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood”) imposed no contributing risk of attention problems. However, fast-paced entertainment programs (such as "Powerpuff Girls"*) increased the risk of attention problems at school age to 60 percent and violent programming increased the risk by 110 percent.

The bottom line is simple: Early childhood is critical to development. There are certain things we can do early on in the child’s development that will enhance their ability to pay attention, and other things that can impede them. Promoting interactive play improves development. We need more real-time play and less fast-paced media for young children. If you change the beginning of the story, you change the whole story of learning and development.

*Powerpuff Girls is a registered trademark.

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