The average American watches more than four hours of television per day (five times the amount dedicated to socialization!). It makes sense that it would change us, the same as doing anything for four hours a day changes you. Yet, it's surprisingly hard to get people to accept this.
But the science is pretty much overwhelming. Enough television rewires your brain in a bunch of unexpected ways. For instance ...
It's easy to assume that impressionable children can be affected by TV shows, but what about toddlers? They aren't even aware of what's going on around them. Besides, they don't do a whole lot besides chew on furniture and inflate their diapers, so it's not like they could be doing something better with their time.
Like curing AIDS with crocs on.
Scientists tracked more than 1,000 29-month-old babies and their television habits and the effects of excess TV were downright startling -- even after researchers accounted for all the other factors that would explain differences in behavior. The more television a child watched as a toddler, the more likely it was that he'd be fat, bullied, bad at math, inactive and prone to misbehavior in the classroom.
Again, that's not a result of watching violent TV shows or anything else that would encourage them to do bad things. Not that a 3-year-old would be able to absorb those lessons anyway.
"Little Jimmy does love his Oz reruns!"
Nope, it's just the act of watching television. And again, it's not just that the type of parent who plants a kid in front of a TV all day probably also runs a bad household -- the results hold up even if you account for all other factors in the kids' upbringing.
And the research holds up around the world. A New Zealand study found that more hours of television viewed as a toddler led to a higher probability of dropping out of school later in life. In a stunning display of initiative, France has even banned shows from having children younger than 3 as their target audience, because French adults are the only ones allowed to have their intelligences insulted.
We bet this show is legal in France.
And while we're on the subject, let's get this one out of the way ...
Since television -- especially children's TV -- is lightning-fast and loaded with stimuli, it isn't outlandish to think that a person's brain might become adjusted to that pace over time. When a teacher cannot supplement his or her lectures with dinosaurs and explosions, a child's television-altered attention span may be so deprived that the child cannot stay focused.
"Now kids, to help us learn about the pyramids, Christian Bale
is going to come in and run over a history book with the Batmobile."
But most of us who don't buy into "the modern world is destroying the children!" alarmism have trouble believing that too much TV can actually rewire your attention span in any significant way.
But an Iowa State University study sure enough found that students who stare at a screen for more than two hours per day are twice as likely to be diagnosed with attention problems, which is awesome when you consider that the average amount of time a child spends watching television and playing video games is 4.26 hours a day.
They'd at least have to go outside to buy drugs.
The study followed 1,323 children in grades three through five and 210 college students. The results make it fairly hard to argue that television doesn't literally change the way the human brain functions, with enough exposure. But even stranger, other studies have shown (just like with the example above) that the amount of television watched as an infant can affect attention habits later in life.
So again, if you want your kids to be able to pay attention to anything for longer than 38 seconds, you need to move into a hotel and wheel the television out onto the balcony like Craig T. Nelson in Poltergeist.
Television can change your dreams, and not just by making you wish you could master time travel to become an advertising executive in the 60s.
"The time machine is in my pants."
According to science, television can alter your actual dreams, the kind that happen while you're asleep. Research has found that some people have monochrome dreams (that is, they dream in black and white), and it's apparently all their televisions' fault.
"Tonight you'll be playing badminton on a pirate ship in magnificent shades of gray!"
In a study of 50 people, half under 25 and the rest over 55, the subjects filled out a questionnaire related to the color of their dreams, their contentedness with their marriages and the colors of their televisions in their formative childhood years. Then the subjects were asked to keep a dream diary. Researchers found that while hardly any of the younger people dreamed in black and white (around four percent), a quarter of the older-than-55 group did. That is, the people who grew up with black and white televisions.
Artist's depiction of every male over 55.
Scientists attribute this to hours of exposure to black and white images during the subjects' formative years, but there is no way to know if the actual dreams were in black and white, or if the subjects just remember them as such due to years of visual training by their TV sets.
It's pretty weird either way.