College Quarterly
Summer 2004 - Volume 7 Number 3

Beginnings and Beyond: The Relationship Between Television Violence and Neurodevelopment of Young Children

by Wayne Eastman, Ed.D.

The human brain, a three-pound organ, is the pathway to human development. "Most neuroscientists today argue that the biological organ inside our skulls is both source and repository of our elusive identity and of all aspects of cognition and emotion" (Conlan, 1999, p. 3). Furthermore, "The brain is the master control of our health and well being, competencies and coping skills. It directs all aspects of bodily functions through established biological pathways" (Bertrand, 2001, p. 9). Research confirms that a person's brain reaches its full maturation at around age 12.

Neuroscientists have shown that the first two years of a child's life is when the most rapid development of the brain occurs (Bertrand, 2001). The first five years of a child's life is the critical period for developing language and cognition. In the context of the preceding statement, it should be noted that the more a brain is stimulated the more it is capable of doing. This growth is often inhibited by the reality that many young children are watching on an average of two or four hours of television per day (Eastman, 2002). This scenario is further compounded by the amount of television violence witnessed by children. It is estimated that by the time an average Canadian or American child leaves elementary school he or she will have seen 8,000 murders and over 100,000 other acts of television violence (Eastman, 2002).

It is obvious that television plays a dominant role in our culture. However, television on its own is neither bad nor good. It offers children benefits such as education and entertainment but television can impact negatively on children - limiting their participation in physical activity and dramatic play. The effect of television on children's behaviour is further accentuated when one considers that very young children have difficulty separating fact from fantasy.

This paper is intended to give an overview of the relationship between television violence and neurodevelopment of young children as well as outline implications for significant others and educators as they endeavor to take control of television viewing. The impact of television violence is global in nature, thus, the findings in this paper are relevant to the children of the world, whether they live in North America or the Mediterranean. The global impact of television violence was reflected in Queen Sofia's (Spain) remarks at the opening in Lisbon of an international conference on television violence. She urged parents and teachers to closely monitor what children are viewing. We deem it important to teach young children rules and life skills, however, with television intruding into the lives of children, it is now essential that we teach them television literacy.

Effects Of TV On Children

What effect does television have on a child's behaviour? As parents and educators, we need to be cognizant of the reality that television can have an impact upon children's behaviour, development, and even their health. Watching television in itself is not necessarily a problem. Of concern is what children are not doing when they are watching TV - for instance, not reading or playing creatively or socializing.

Possibly the more television children watch, the greater the negative influence on their lives. What is heavy viewing? Experts often define viewing not in terms of hours but in relationship to exclusion of other activities, such as playing. However, there are researchers that state four hours a day is the maximum viewing time for young children. Others, recommend preschoolers be exposed to only one to two programs per day, and with a maximum of two hours at a time (Eastman, 1995).

When considering the negative effects of television on young children, most parents and early childhood educators see violence and aggression as the greatest concern. The most frequent reasons for this are as follows; children tend to imitate behaviour they view on television, frequent exposure to TV violence can make children think that violence is normal, even in real life, children who take in large quantities of televised violence tend to see the world as a frightening place and grow leery of neighbours and strangers, and children who see, over and over again, that violence is an acceptable solution to problems, tend to work out their problems in the same way. The later statement merits attention because young children's aggressive skills are acquired earlier than mental or social skills (Beaty, 1995). Consequently, "Children who admire aggressiveness in their heroes and heroines may see little reason for devoting time and effort to learning other ways of problem solving" (Singer, 1988).

Early childhood educators should consider TV programs in the context of developmental appropriateness. Developmental appropriateness should be the criterion used for evaluating television programs. With respect to TV appropriateness, Levin (1994) conceived a developmental framework for assessing television.

Levin's (1994) framework included three categories: developmental issues, what children see on TV, and what children should see. The developmental issues included the following: to establish a sense of trust and safety, to develop a sense of autonomy with connectedness, to develop a sense of improvement, to establish gender identity, to develop an appreciation of diversity among people, and to have opportunities for meaningful play. Within this framework, Levin (1994) contends that television negatively impacts on the healthy social, emotional, and intellectual development of young children.

Television Violence And Neurodevelopment Of Children

In the report, Starting Points, the Carnegie Corporation of New York talks about the significance of a child's first three years of life as vital to brain development (Kotulak, 1999). The Carnegie report reiterates the concern that the lack of proper stimulation may be damaging the brains of young children (Kotulak, 1999). As a corollary to the preceding statement, too much exposure to the wrong kind of stimulation, such as television violence, may be equally damaging to the developing brains of children. As a possible reaction to the relentless viewing of television violence, the brain may adapt by cells rewiring trillions of connections that establish the chemical pathways of aggression (Kotulak, 1996).

An infant is born with approximately 100 billion brain cells. These neurons are designed to store and transmit information (CCCF, 2001). Children's brains are at its most receptive stage in infancy and early childhood, when experiences, positive or negative, will affect how groups of neurons are either strengthened or disregarded (CCCF, 2001). Thus, these early experiences play a crucial role in shaping how children perceive the world. Television violence may deprive children of experiences that help to develop neural pathways which are necessary for healthy brain development. Furthermore, "Extensive viewing of violent television shows and video games can lead to an emotional desensitization. Children may seek increasing horrific programming just to feel some emotional response" (De Gaetano, 1999, p. 5). Such emotional desensitization affects young viewers differently from adults in that children have a stronger tendency than their older counterparts to identify with a particular character (Eastman, 2002). It has been estimated that by the time an average North American child, one who watches two to four hours of TV per day, completes elementary school, he or she will have witnessed approximately 8,000 murders and viewed over 100,000 acts of violence (Eastman, 2002).

Because young children have difficulties distinguishing between fantasy and reality, they are vulnerable to the negative effects of TV violence. Children who take in large quantities of TV violence tend to see the world as a frightening place as well they may be more fearful of the world around them. Consequently, the preceding factors may cause stress. Research as indicated that "The neural pathways that control how we respond to stress seem to be particularly powerful in shaping how we learn and behave, and our overall health" (CCCF, 2001). Thus, if children are exposed to sustained stress during the time when the brain is going through its major sculpting process, they can be adversely affected in later life (CCCF, 2001).  The Canadian Child Care Federation (2001) states that "When a child is under prolonged stress, the child's brain sends a signal for his body to produce greater amounts of a stress hormone called cortisol. The constant release of cortisol means the child is constantly on high alert". Thus, children who view large quantities of television violence may behave more aggressively towards others.

Not only do most young children have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, they also can't articulate a rationale for the violence they witness in the media culture. Furthermore, they lack the cognitive attributes to put these violent images into meaningful contexts (De Gaetano, 1999). This inability to put fear-inspiring experiences into a cognitive setting implies that children under the age of eight years are extremely vulnerable to the violent imagery portrayed in many television programs (De Gaetano, 1999). Young children often can't distinguish between pro-social and anti-social behaviors portrayed on television programs. Consequently, they often imitate violent behaviors witnessed on TV. It has been determined that by the age of three children imitate television characters as readily as they imitate real people (Eastman,2002).

There are those who state that children's brains are not developing the way they should because of viewing excessive television violence. Heavy TV watching during the early years when the brain is malleable and sensitive prolongs the dominance of the right brain functions (Long and Buglion, 2000). Thus, inhibiting the left brain which is responsible for verbal-logical functions (Long, 2000). Furthermore, numerous studies over the years have demonstrated that there is a correlation between TV violence and aggressive behavior. Recent evidence indicates that "… there is a sensitive period that begins before age eight when children are especially susceptible to the effects of violence shown on TV" (Long, 2000, P. 4). In regards to this sensitive period, Murray (2003) implies that we should have clear concerns about the ways our culture uses video violence given the accumulating evidence of the harmful effects of video violence, especially the suggestion that "…neurological processing of entertainment violence is not different from processing real violence…".

Ledingham (2001) states that "Young children do not process information in the same way as adults." She further articulates, "Nor do they have the experience to evaluate what they see" (p. 2-3). Thus, Ledingham (2001) concludes that since many young children watch a considerable amount of TV, this makes them especially susceptible to the adverse impacts of television.  Media monitoring agencies estimate that the number of violent acts in children's programs are six times greater than adult shows (Eastman, 2002). Because of the excess amount of violence in television shows for children, many heavy viewers develop a distorted sense of reality (Long, N. D.).  Johnson (1999) characterizes watching television "— as multi-level sensory deprivation that may be stunting the growth of our children's brains". Jane Healy's (1990) research indicated that brain size could decrease 20-30% if a child is not talked to, touched, or played with. Thus, in the context of Healy's writings, excessive amount of television viewing could be potentially harmful because it presents information to the hearing and sight senses only (Johnson, 1999).

What are the mechanisms by which exposure to television violence might affect young children? One explanation is Bandura's model of social learning. This model infers that watching television violence can lead to aggression because "… children observe novel aggressive behaviours and learn vicariously that aggressive acts are rewarded" (Ledingham, Ledingham, and Richardson, 1993, p. 8). Furthermore, "They store these new behaviours in memory as part of the repitoire of actions that are available to get them what they want" (Ledingham, et al, 1993, p. 8). Thus, the more real children perceive the violence they witness on television the more they will endeavor to imitate that violent behavior (Ledingham, et al, 1993). Children are great imitators who often believe what they view on television as being true because many of the characters portray qualities that make them acceptable role models (Eastman, 2002). The imitation factor is further perpetuated by the reality that many children's programs reflect violence in a humorous manner.

Violent television images can keep a child's instincts and emotions in a constant state of alertness for flight or fight and at the same time reduce their thinking functions (Eastman, 2002). Known as the 'orienting response', the human brain is wired to fix the eyes on sudden changes in the environment. Unlike adults, young children are more susceptible to rapid changing television images. This vulnerability is accentuated by their choice of television programs, for example cartoons. It has been estimated that images change approximately every 4 to 6 seconds during children cartoon shows. This potential negative affect is further compounded by the reality that children's cartoons often portray many more acts of violence than adult programming (Eastman, 2002).

When children decide to imitate a behavior, morality is not a part of this decision process (De Gaetano, 1999). Centerivall (1992) writes "That young children do not possess an instinct for gauging whether a behaviour ought to be imitated." He further states that "They will imitate anything, including behaviors that most adults would regard as destructive and antisocial …" (p. 3059). This inability to distinguish between safe and potentially dangerous behaviours make children extremely vulnerable to the negative effects of violent TV programming. Kotaluk (1966) adds, "There is increasing concern that the lack of proper stimulation may be damaging brains. The same may be true of too much exposure to the wrong kind of stimulation, such as violence".

As children view television violence the chemical transmitter, noradrenaline, comes into play. As they watch graphic programs the production of noradrenaline increases in children's brains. The brain's alarm network is located at the base of the brain and sends noradrenaline to other brain centers that control such functions as emotions (De Gaetano, 1999). "As the images assault the brain, the noradrenaline level rises, keeping the body in a constant state of readiness - easy to startle, quick to blow up"(De Gaetano, 1999). The preceding rationale is a contributing factor in why after watching violent television scenes children are more prone to act in aggressive ways like shouting, bullying and play and real fighting. Murray's (N.D.) study on brainmapping and children's response to video violence puts forth the concern that children were storing entertainment violence as if it were a significant life event. Murray (N.D.) further articulates, this can be a dangerous occurrence because such memories can guide or disrupt current behaviors.

In concluding this section of the paper it is suffice to state that not only does television violence affect the neurodevelopment of children but it also deprives them of sensory-rich experiences necessary for healthy brain development (De Gaetano, 1999). A growing apprehension among brain researchers is that large amounts of television viewing may affect the development of strong and widespread neural pathways necessary for a 'good' brain (De Gaetano, 1999).

Implications For Parents And Early Childhood Educators

It is obvious that TV viewing reduces a child's play time. Several authors, for example Winn (1985), state that the loss of play time can be devastating because "... play is clearly a vehicle for many of the child's most important learnings and the means whereby he is able to practice and develop behaviours necessary to his success as a social being." Winn (1985) further states that "Not only does TV viewing lead to a reduction in play time; there is evidence to suggest that it has affected the nature of children's play, particularly indoor play." As a corollary to Winn's findings, there are early childhood educators who feel that preschoolers' dramatic play have become much more aggressive, less creative and imaginative and dominated by violent TV characters (Beaty, 1995; Carlsson-Paige, 1995).

Parents need to create a setting where their children feel safe. Hence, parents must monitor television viewing so that their young child watches appropriate TV which personifies this feeling of safety. As Symons (1991) states: "When programs are chosen carefully, when TV time is limited, and when parents watch too, actively, then the 'boob tube' can, indeed, enrich our children's lives."

A report by the Ontario Medical Association indicated that watching television is a major contributor to sleeplessness, depression, and hyperactivity in young children (Rosenkrantz, 1994). If such findings disturb families, then parents must enact strategies to lessen the possible negative effects of the 'Plug-In Drug'. There are a litany of strategies germane to television screening and young children. Listed below are some, and by no means inclusive, positive steps parents can take to facilitate television guidance:

When your child is watching television, watch with him or her. Being proactive affords parents the opportunity to develop television literacy. If parents are sincere in managing the television they must conceptualize their goals; for example one goal may be to have their child watch less violence.

Parents should limit the amount of time their preschoolers watch television. Some parents develop formal rules and are selective in the programs they allow their children to view. For instance, in regards to what to watch, very young children could be given a TV allowance - for example two shows a day, or only television on the weekend.

Television should not be the sole source of recreational time in a household. Thus, for parents this means planning alternative activities such as family picnic, visiting a library, taking walks, etc.

Parents should be careful about indiscriminate viewing of news programs. Young children who are exposed to a lot of news can become desensitized to acts of violence (Rosenkrantz, 1994).

Parents can plan special viewing times with their children (Rosenkrantz, 1994). Even very young children can plan their weekly television guides or select programs to be videoed and watched at a more convenient time (Rodgers, 1994).

Parents can get preschoolers to think about what they are viewing. One way to accomplish this goal is by turning the TV into a treasure hunt. Children should concentrate on one thing at a time, for example commercials, and then move on to other items (Rodgers, '94).

Conversations are much more effective than lectures with young children. This is because young children have difficulty comprehending abstract ideas like equality and socially acceptable problem solving techniques. Thus, parents can assist their child to understand these concepts by demonstrating how they work in real life (Rodgers, '94).

Parents should be cognizant of the TV being left on just for background noise and turn it off. A corollary to the idea of leaving the TV on for no particular purpose is the avoidance of television as a babysitter. Allowing the TV to be on constantly sets a pattern of TV dependence. For example, if parents are busy why not turn-off the TV and have the children listen to music or do crafts (Rosendrantz, 1994).

Talk with your child about what is real and not real on television. Talk about the concept of acting - relate acting to a game of make-believe. Also, talk about cartoon characters. You might occasionally want to ask your child if the characters are real and what would happen to real people and animals if they were in similar situations (Rosenkrantz, 1994).

Possibly the most important suggestion to parents is that they be aware of their child's reaction to what they view and if he or she becomes disturbed by a particular program then turn the TV off and do something else together (Rosenkrantz, 1994).

As professionals working with very young children, early childhood educators can do much to assist preschoolers understand the role of television in our society. More specifically, early childhood educators can plan the curriculum " that it provides opportunities for children to share their views, gain knowledge, go beyond TV visions, develop critical viewing skills, make critical choices, build on resources, work together with parents, and have the freedom to play" (Stone-Zukowski, 1994).

Outlined below are activities early childhood educators can incorporate into their curriculum in order to help children cope with the affects of television viewing:

Discussion: assure children that you share their concerns. When dealing with young children ensure that they know trusted adults are there to protect them.

Knowledge: Provide opportunities for children to learn how movies and television shows are made. You can have children visit a TV station, make or draw cartoons about TV shows, make a video, and make a commercial.

Critical Choices: Encourage children to make critical choices about the shows they watch on TV. Help parents recognize the importance of making choices that fit with their family standards. Learn about the rating systems established in your country. Provide resources for parents and children that will help them make choices.

Fantasy: Encourage opportunities for children to express their feelings in ways that feel good, are non-threatening and removed from reality. This can be done by: role playing monsters, creatures from outer space, dinosaurs, and fairytale characters; singing and writing songs about the rain forest animals, etc.; and telling true or make-believe stories and using puppets to share concerns.

Action Groups: Children can work with adults to become aware of various lobby groups and government agencies that can have a positive impact on the issues raised on TV (Stone-Zukowski, 1994).


For educators and parents, possibly the greatest issue is the effect of television violence on children's behaviour. Young children have limited cognitive abilities to process and cope with violence. Consequently, Dr. Benjamin Spock advocates that children under the age of four have limited or no exposure to media violence (Stone-Zukowski, 1994). This may be an unrealistic expectation given the pervasive nature of television in today's world. Since the introduction of the television in the 1950's, it has invaded every aspect of society. In the context of the affects television violence has on the neurodevelopment of young children, it is essential that adults promote media literacy skills. Thus, empowering children with abilities to deal with images and issues portrayed on TV.


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Wayne Eastman has a Doctor of Education degree from Boston University. He is the Coordinator of Applied Arts and Access Programs, as well he teaches in the Early Childhood Education department, at the College of the North Atlantic, Corner Brook Campus, NL. He can be reached at (709) 637-8533 or


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