When the Redskins recently battled the Giants in our living room, there was no bigger fan than 9-month-old Baby V. Unlike her father, she was not interested in RGIII’s shortcomings as a quarterback. The tiny, colorful guys running around on a bright green field, the psychedelic special effects and the bursts of noise drew her in like a moth to a 42-inch, high-definition flame.
My friends with kids have noticed the same screen fascination in their little ones. Like adults, kids love colorful, shiny, moving screens. The problem, of course, is that long bouts in front of the tube have been linked to obesity, attention problems and aggression in kids.
Now, a new study of Japanese children has linked TV time with changes in their growing brains. And the more television a kid watches, the more profound the brain differences, scientists reported Nov. 20 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
Researchers studied kids between age 5 and 18 who watched, on average, about two hours of television a day. Brain scans revealed that the more TV a child watched, the larger certain parts of the brain were. Gray matter volume was higher in regions toward the front and side of the head in kids who watched a lot of TV.
Say that again? Watching television boosts brain volume? Before you rejoice and fire up Season 1 of “Breaking Bad,” keep in mind: Bigger isn’t always better.
In this case, higher brain volume in these kids was associated with a lower verbal IQ. Study co-author Hikaru Takeuchi of Tohoku University says that these brain areas need to be pruned during childhood to operate efficiently. “Gray matter volume is like body weight,” Takeuchi says: The scales can be tipped by both muscle and fat. Stretching the analogy to its (admittedly ridiculous) endpoint, TV might make the developing brain too fat.
These results, like most of the other studies on children and TV time, highlight an association. The data can’t say that TV viewing caused these changes. Even if the results could do that, it still wouldn’t be clear whether the culprit was TV itself or the lack of other activities such as playing sports, practicing an instrument or playing with pals. Some of the kids in the study watched TV for four hours a day. Along with eating, sleeping and going to school, that heavy TV load leaves very little time for anything else.