Was my hippy babysitter’s refrigerator magnet right?

About twenty years ago, when I was seven or eight years old, I would walk down the street to my French-Canadian babysitter’s house whenever both my parents were going out. She was a mother of three; a very progressive woman who drove a full-sized Chevy van hand-painted by the neighbourhood kids.

I’ll never forget the message displayed in bold typeface across a large refrigerator magnet in her kitchen: “TV is killing our kids…YOU WANT PROOF?”

I was never sure exactly what it was referring to, but I always wondered about it. Actually, I thought she was kind of a nut because she wouldn’t let her three kids watch any television (except for an occasional PBS program). I mean come on, me and all my friends watch television, and we’re okay!

Later, when I began studying electronic media in university, I started to wonder if there might be something more to that ominous message on the side of my hippy babysitter’s refrigerator than just an overprotective mother looking for something to blame.

An article published recently in The Scotsman, “Children’s TV ‘is linked to cancer, autism, dementia’” sheds a little more light:

IT HAS long been blamed for creating a nation of couch potatoes. But a new report today claims that Britain’s love affair with television is causing far more damage – both physically and psychologically – than previously thought.

The findings have been compiled by Dr Aric Sigman, a psychologist who has previously written about the effects of television on the viewer. His report, analysing 35 different scientific studies carried out into television and its effect on the viewer, has identified 15 negative effects he claims can be blamed on watching television.

Among the most disturbing findings are the links he claims to have found between long hours of television viewing and cancer, autism and Alzheimer’s.

Other studies have found similar things. The Scotsman article explains how it doesn’t matter what shows your kids (or you) are watching, the effects are the same. Just like McLuhan told us, the medium is the message:

His report, published in the respected Biologist magazine, claims the problem with television lies in the length of time we spend in front of the set. For most people, watching television now takes up more time than any other single activity except work and sleep. According to the British Audience Research Bureau, by the age of 75 the average Briton will have spent more than 12 years of their life watching television.

Dr Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and author of Remotely Controlled: How Television Is Damaging Our Lives, said arguments over how educational programmes are were a distraction. He said: “The medical studies I have looked at are about the medium of television, irrespective of the programmes children are watching. It is the number of hours and the age at which they start which produces the biological effects. It is because of the medium, not the message, that these effects are occurring.”

The rest sounds like a science fiction nightmare:

Dr Sigman claims the battery of ill effects takes its toll on both body and mind. He claims the effect on the brain is not stimulating, but almost narcotic, numbing the areas of the brain stimulated by, for example, reading.

The influence of modern editing techniques – for example the rapid “jump cuts” – also plays its part. Attention spans fracture while at the same time, according to Dr Sigman, the brain is programmed to reward itself with the neurotransmitter dopamine for being able to cope with an onslaught of novelty on screen.

The litany of bodily ills Dr Sigman links to television makes for equally bleak reading. He associates it not only with obesity, but Alzheimer’s, diabetes and even the breakdown of cells capable of healing wounds. Dr Sigman claims a significant body of research now points to television as a key factor in reducing levels of the hormone melatonin, the substance that regulates the body’s internal clock and also governs the speed at which puberty develops.

Melatonin is produced at night and induces feelings of sleepiness. However, today’s report suggests the bright light emitted by television screens may play a part in suppressing melatonin levels in the blood.

That syndrome may explain that adolescents who are glued to the television are tired out by more than watching late-night programmes.

The other crucial issue thrown up by melatonin, Dr Sigman says, is its link to puberty. The hormone also plays a key role in governing the onset of puberty, and its suppression may be paving the way for a generation of children to experience ever-earlier entries into adolescence.

That tendency can be traced back to the 1950s, according to the report, when television itself became a mass medium.

More of Dr Sigman’s work – “HOW TV IS (quite literally) KILLING US”