It is a great time to be living as a doctor if you are interested in research that examines how the brain works. This week I came across an article that confirmed something that common sense should have told us. Watching television appears to lower the intelligence of children who watch it. And even more importantly, it appears to change their brains.

Researchers at the Tohoku University in Japan conducted a study that examined the effects of watching television on the brain structure as seen in brain scanning.[i]  They found that children who spent an average of 2 hours a day in screen time had increased gray matter in the frontal cortex. This was not a positive finding according to the researchers who correlated the increase gray matter with lower verbal intelligence. Children with superior intelligence quotients had thinning of gray matter in the same areas.

The researchers were careful to say that their study showed a correlative but not a causal relationship between watching television and the brain changes.  While learning a musical instrument would have a positive effect on brain development, watching television did not appear to have that kind of effect. The researchers noted that their study could not say if the changes were due to watching television or the absence of doing things like reading, playing a musical instrument, or playing sports that were displaced by television time.

So once again we are indebted to medical research for proving something that my mother knew in 1950. She would only let my brother and I watch 30 minutes of the “tube” a day and she would approve the program. Violently amusing programs like The Three Stooges were not on the playlist because my brother and I were good imitators.  We also did not suffer from childhood obesity. We read. We played outside.

As I travel and teach, I ask parents to tell me what they think would happen to their children if they lived to the age of 18 and never watched a minute of television or ever played a computer game? After a bit I tell them their child would just grow up and be normal! This week I spent a good bit of time reading about ADHD, and a recurring theme was that watching television and playing computer games more than 30 minutes a day has an adverse effect on the attention spans and concentration of children.  Now we know that the very structure of their brains may be affected by every minute they devote to screen time.

Reading books shapes the brain. Playing Monopoly with friends shapes intelligence and personality. Play outside on a sunny day determines the way we interpret the color of a blue sky. Playing the violin & the piano shapes our brains in ways that can be seen on the brain scans. Maybe it is time for parents to make choices for their children that they will appreciate when they reach their 18th year with a normal brain.  

[i] Hikaru Takeuchi, The Impact of Television Viewing on Brain Structures: Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Analyses, the journal Cerebral Cortex bht315 first published online November 20, 2013 doi:10.1093/cercor/bht315
A summary of the article also appeared in the UK Daily Mail online at the following: article  

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