One More Reason to Not Let Your Kids Watch TV
November 5, 2013 1 Comment
“Theory of Mind” (ToM) is the term psychologists use to describe the ability to interpret the distinct mental states of others. The knowledge that each person’s head contains a unique conception of the world is the first step toward understanding what others want and feel.
Developing ToM is an important part of childhood. It’s what allows kids to get along with others and make sense of the world around them. An improved theory of mind among adults could ultimately lead to less conflict and a society better geared toward improving human welfare.
What helps and hinders the development of Theory of Mind? A 2009 study (pdf) led by York University’s Raymond Mar suggests that books and movies may help, but that television does not. And that’s the rosy view of television. A new study led by Ohio State’s Amy Nathanson suggests that television is detrimental to ToM development.
This study explored the relation between preschoolers’ television exposure and one important indicator of cognitive processing called theory of mind (ToM). A total of 107 preschoolers and their parents provided data on the preschoolers’ television exposure (including both intentional viewing and exposure via background television), parent–child discussion of television, and preschoolers’ ToM. The results indicated that preschoolers who were exposed to more background television and who had a television in their bedroom performed more poorly on ToM assessments compared with other children. Parent–child discussion of television was positively related to ToM performance, however. These results have implications for how we understand the effects of television on preschoolers.
The study is largely correlational, so there’s still a question of causality. Perhaps a lack of social interaction in the family — the kind that might help with ToM development — drives kids to watch more TV. It’s also possible that kids with a less-developed ToM tend to be drawn to television. But the most likely explanation is that when young children watch TV they don’t develop an understanding of how other people think to the extent that they do when they interact with actual people.
A lot is written about the dangers of modern media, but much of the criticism tends to focus on how communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook dumb us down. While this is a serious concern — one that Neil Postman was somehow able to foresee with regard to television nearly 30 years ago — I think a less-publicized and perhaps more serious threat is that human interaction will be replaced by inferior alternatives.
When two people choose to have an argument over Twitter rather than publishing competing essays or engaging in face-to-face debate, the dialogue may be less fruitful, but at least there is authentic human interaction. With that comes certain emotions and thoughts — for example, what the other person is thinking — that can be stored for later use. But if people fulfill their need for cognitive and emotional arousal by observing fictional television characters rather than engaging in human interaction, the result may be less positive cognitive development. It’s the equivalent of getting calories from candy rather than through real food.
Nathanson’s study is just one data point, but in general the less you do something the worse you’re going to be at it. If we allow Netflix to start filling cognitive or emotional needs that social interactions used to fill, people will probably get worse at optimizing social interactions.
Nathanson, A.I., Sharp, M.L., Alade, F., Rasmussen, E.E., & Christy, K. (2013). The Relation Between Television Exposure and Theory of Mind Among Preschoolers Journal of Communication DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12062