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Managing Media with Brain Development in Mind: Saving a Generation from Fast Food Brain

Fifty years ago, the first fast food restaurants opened in our country. Since that time there has been a steady increase in obesity. Whenever American fast food is introduced in a new nation, obesity soon follows. Obesity is an epidemic related to the modern proliferation of fast food chains, along with other similar style food products and marketing, yet fast food restaurants are now so ubiquitous it's hard to say how to address the issue on a societal level.
Frighteningly, we're letting the same thing happen to our collective health again. Just as the food industry undermined the dining habits of several generations, we are now allowing the media and entertainment industry to define how we use their own products. Parents, raised immersed in television and computers, often dismiss the problem. The kids are having fun, let them be. It doesn't seem pressing, and there are other things to worry about besides screen time. But without action - not eliminating media, but intervening and learning to handle it better - we're raising an entire generation at risk for 'fast food brain,' with minds chronically unhealthy and cognitively out of shape.
This month in Pediatrics, a study showed that short-term exposure to a fast-paced cartoon affected mental skills called 'executive functioning' for the worse. Executive functioning relates to overall well-being, as well as social, academic and work success. It acts as our brain manager, monitoring our behavior and the organization of our thoughts throughout the day.
In the Pediatrics study, executive function was measured after viewing nine minutes of a popular cartoon and after watching a slower-paced program. Children showed measurable decreases in their executive function after viewing the fast-paced cartoon, but not the slower-paced program. In other words, their ability to self-regulate suffered almost instantaneously. In the real world, when I ask families how much media time their children get every day, they often pause and do the math and end up somewhere between one and three hours - far more than nine minutes.
The cartoon used in the study isn't anything particularly violent or obscure. It is a wildly popular, geometrically shaped character who resides on the sea floor - Spongebob. We've all seen him around and have probably watched the show ourselves. And while the study's findings are unique, they support many others that have documented the long-term ill effects of media time, including concerns that too much media correlates with shorter attention spans - one of our most central executive function skills.
To set our children up for success we must encourage the growth of cognitive skills that help manage the ups and downs of life. Unattended media use gets in the way; excess media and inappropriate content for children correlates with everything from obesity to aggressive behaviors. It's easy to shrug it off - it can serve as a useful babysitter and is mindlessly fun - but that doesn't make all of it benign.
Media exposure affects brain development on a foundational level. Another study out this month shows again that television, as opposed to reading, impairs language growth and early literacy skills. With its underlying cognitive and developmental effects, 'fast food brain' impairs social and academic progress and long-term happiness. Media is nothing more than cotton candy for the mind. A little is fine, but you don't want to overdo it too often.
However you've managed it up to now, the choice is yours as to what comes next. Don't live on autopilot. Don't let the effects of media passively happen to you and yours without making a conscious decision about what is wisest for your household. Kids shouldn't consume media without guidance any more than they should be permitted to eat fast food and candy all day long. Stop, reflect, and think proactively about both the amount and the content of television shows, video games, and movies your children experience and the potential effect on brain development. Will you decide how media is used in your family, or leave the choice to all the marketers aiming for your children?
With fast food we missed our chance to make intelligent plans as a society. Now we are scrambling to undo the damage. This time around we can make individual statements for our families, but also band together as a whole. We have time to refocus our culture on a healthy lifestyle, emphasizing what we know is best for child development, while still allowing for plenty of down time, random fun and for letting kids to be kids. The clock is ticking. The choice is ours to make.
Published on September 22, 2011 by Mark Bertin, M.D. in Child Development Central

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