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The consequences of electronic media

Conway McLean, DPM

My father used to tell me, repeatedly and emphatically, that too much television watching will rot your brain. What study documented this, and how this process occurred, these were all very mysterious questions. You did not interrogate my father, so I am uncertain as to how this decision, to limit viewing, was reached. Regardless, he, like many parents then and today, tightly controlled our tv watching time.

Was this an appropriate “request”? Why is this so important to some parents? What evidence exists giving us facts about the hazards of “tube time”? There are many questions but, predictably, few answers. Studying something like television, as well as the many forms of digital media, something so varied, so pervasive, something so much a part of our culture, that is an incredibly difficult task. Despite the importance of these questions, the effects of excessive gaming and television, few good long term studies have been conducted.

What effect does watching tv have on your brain? We know that the brain is more active while sleeping than it is while watching the tube. Brain activity is a critical factor in the health of this vital organ. Thus, watching more tv means a less healthy brain. TV viewing is a passive process, requiring no mental work. In contrast, reading demands the creating of mental images, entailing significant brainpower to do so.

Studies have revealed some health negative consequences of watching television. Increased viewing time increases one’s risk of death from heart disease, strokes and even cancer. Every hour per day spent watching television increases your risk of death from heart disease by about a fifth. Sitting in front of the tv for more than four hours a day increases a person’ risk of death from cardio-vascular complications by 80%. Obviously, this is more an indictment of inactivity than tv watching. Evidence has revealed sitting for long periods of time has an unhealthy influence on an individual’s blood sugar and fat levels, even if someone has a healthy body weight.

Thinking ability, what scientifically is referred to as cognition, is one of the primary concerns when evaluating the long term effects of tv and gaming. Some studies have found that adults ages 50 or older who watched more than 3 and a 1/2 hours of TV everyday were more likely to experience declines in language and memory over the subsequent six years.

The dangers of inadequate physical activity have been well established, but few studies have examined the effects of what watching too much TV can do to our brains. Research carried out over 25 years by a California research group has recently shown the dangers of television for our brain cells, even in those who exercise regularly. The most frequent viewers over the quarter century of this particular research were more likely to perform poorly on the tests of thinking abilities. When compared to moderate viewers who regularly engaged in physical activity, frequent viewers who did not exercise were nearly twice as likely to perform poorly on tests of cognition.

Exercise can’t fully overcome the harmful effects of too many hours spent watching television. If you engage in regular physical activity, you will maintain your cognitive abilities better than someone who is sedentary. Regardless, if you watch more than three hours of television per day, it is probably going to have negative consequences on your intellectual activity.

Television reduces your ability to think critically. When you watch TV, brain activity switches from the side of your brain responsible for logical thought and critical analysis, which is the left side, over to the right side. The right side of the brain tends not to analyze incoming information. The brain’s right side responds emotionally, resulting in little or no analysis of the information. This could be a significant problem: it would lead you to believe whatever anyone told you without doing your own critical analysis. This inability to analyze could be dangerous.

The newest media danger may be gaming. The number and variety of computer games now available is staggering. For years, one of the biggest concerns has been the violence perpetrated in many video games. Some experts believe gaming leads to increased hyperactivity, as well as problems with attention span. Additionally, increased gaming frequency was associated with a child’s tendency to internalize their problems.

Frequent competitive gaming among children who played video games for approximately eight and a half hours or more per week was associated with increased anxiety and symptoms of depression. This increase was noted especially amongst adolescents. Yet some still question the more common assumptions about the way gaming impacts children psychology. Are these views grounded in science or a moral fantasy, what does the empirical evidence say?

One theory suggests frequent gaming at a young age impairs how well our children learn to deal with real world challenges. In part, this may be because gaming worlds provide the ability to “get a re-do”, to retake challenges. Obstacles in the real world may seem overwhelming to frequent young gamers, leading them to resist any real challenge.

Some recommendations made by experts include combining passive time in front of the television with contrasting types of activities that get you out and about. Another tactic not so recommended is performing some more productive activity while watching. Some examples would be exercising, doing something creative, maybe even laundry. Finding better ways to use one’s time is another approach. Participate in more stimulating activities instead, like reading a book, crossword puzzles, or artistic pursuits.

Parents should think carefully about their approach to electronic media. It is of little benefit to moralize about gaming time or tv time. Think about the topic, maybe even do some research. These are big decisions; you need to be comfortable with the one’s you make. What is in the best interest of your child? It would seem we cannot be certain about the results of these critical choices, on our children’s, and our own, television and gaming time. Could the ever-more frequent displays of psychological illness in our society be related to the violent electronic games that people, kids included, are watching? Regardless of the studies performed, this may be a question we can never answer.

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with a move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments atdrcmclean@outlook.com.