Television or books?

An Essay By Grace J. // 1/29/2019

“No dessert until you have finished your dinner.” Children quickly learn to dread these words, hoping to bypass the yucky green beans, chewy steak, and bland rolls, and skip to the delicious dessert. However, parents know that despite the pleasure and ease involved in consuming dessert, health is more important. Unfortunately, adults do not apply this truth in the entertainment world. Television, a popular form of entertainment among children, endangers a child’s wellbeing; reading, however, enhances it. Although modern children prefer watching television to reading books for entertainment, books are superior to movies because they encourage thinking and processing and help children interact with others.

While children enjoy reading books and watching television, young people prefer television. Despite its recent invention, television is popular among Americans of every age, including children. In fact, research discovered that in 2009, American children from ages 2 to 5 spent about twenty-four hours and fifty-one minutes watching television each week—an entire day out of every seven.(1) American children from ages 6 to 11 spent about twenty-two hours and nine minutes watching television each week.(2) Television has quickly captured the attention of children, consuming enormous amounts of their time. Reading, however, has decreased among children. Christina Clark writes that forty percent of UK children “read daily outside of class” in 2005; unfortunately, by 2011, the number had shrunk to thirty percent, and twenty-two percent of UK children “rarely or never read in their own time.”(3) Clark says a potential problem is “many children and young people enjoying reading but pushing it out in favour [sic] of other activities.”(4) In fact, in 2011, fifty-four percent of UK children reported they “prefer watching TV to reading.”(5) Reading is neither entirely disregarded nor considered worthless; nevertheless, when children had to choose between books and television, television won. Watching television is a popular form of entertainment—more popular than reading.

Watching television is easier than reading a book, but the ease harms children. Liraz Margalit argues against presenting particularly young children with tablets and phones. She compares a child listening to a mother read to a child watching a story on a phone, where “…a smartphone-told story spoon-feeds images, words, and pictures all at once to a young reader.”(6) Like a mother feeds her baby, phones feed children. Unlike babies, though, children possess the capability to feed themselves, and therefore it is harmful if they constantly let others feed them. Margalit explains, “Rather than having to take the time to process a mother’s voice into words, visualize complete pictures and exert a mental effort to follow a story line, kids who follow stories on their smartphones get lazy. The device does the thinking for them, and as a result, their own cognitive muscles remain weak.”(7) While Margalit is addressing tablets, television also presents information to children in a manner easy to absorb. Television requires less thinking than reading or listening to a book, discourages children from imagining scenery and characters, and decreases a brain’s exercise; television discourages work.

Reading, however, encourages thinking and processing. Reading uses multiple aspects of the brain, as Sebastian Wren explains:

"Right now, as you read this passage of text, your occipital cortex is very active, processing all of the visual information you are encountering – the words, the letters, and the features of the letters. The frontal lobe of your neocortex is engaged in processing the meaning of the text you’re reading – the meanings of the words, the sentences, and the big picture, and it is working to relate what you are reading with what you already know. Surprisingly, your temporal lobe … is also active right now, processing all of the “sounds” associated with reading – even though you’re reading silently to yourself, the areas of the brain that process speech sounds are active just like they would be if you were listening to somebody speak."(8)

In other words, multiple aspects of a person’s brain work during reading. Reading is not simple: it forces the brain to act—and not one part of the brain, but multiple aspects. While reading, children think and process. Sarah Clarkson, after quoting Wren, writes, “Not only are numerous parts of the brain involved in the act of reading, but the mind is also actively questioning the new information, deciding its meaning, and choosing where it will place it within the files of its previous knowledge.”(9) While reading, a child processes the information. The brain ponders the idea’s meaning and stores it. Clarkson reflects on the brain’s actions during reading before declaring, “Every aspect of this description suggests that reading is an intense mental activity. It produces the exact opposite of TV’s passivity, resulting in a brain trained to interact with ideas and a mind able to comprehend, choosing what it will accept or reject as true.”(10) Through reading, a child’s brain practices processing and questioning ideas. Reading teaches a child’s brain to work, think, and act; it engages the child. Books require people to think and the brain to work, while television does not. Clarkson contrasts reading books and watching television well: “Reading teaches a child to grapple with every idea he receives—questioning it and considering its merits. TV (or any other electronic presentation) trains a child to passively accept whatever is shown.”(11) Reading teaches children to process and examine information, a valuable skill. During childhood, a child’s beliefs and opinions about the world form. While beliefs can change later in life, the easiest time to influence a person is during their youth. If a child cannot process information thrown at them, if a child does not question ideas, if a child lacks the ability to think, then he or she is vulnerable—young people will not know what ideas to reject and accept. Critical thinking will be impossible. A child cannot gain valuable thinking skills if, from age two or younger, the world encourages them to swallow every bite pushed in their mouth without chewing. Television, though, does not encourage children to chew; reading does—in fact it forces them to process the information, therefore encouraging critical thinking.

However, children should not only be able to process ideas but also share them; books improve social skills, while television degrades them. Television fails to prepare children to interact—children spend less time with people while watching television, leading to harmful results. The frontal lobe, one aspect of the brain, enables children to interact. Liraz Margalit writes, “The brain’s frontal lobe is the area responsible for decoding and comprehending social interactions. It is in this corner of the mind that we empathize with others, take in nonverbal cues while talking to friends and colleagues, and learn how to read the hundreds of unspoken signs—facial expression, tone of voice, and more—that add color and depth to real-world relationships.”(12) The frontal lobe allows a child improved interactions with people by enabling the child to read people’s expressions and similar forms of communication. Properly working frontal lobes help children create friendships and pleasantly interact with others. As Margalit explains, the frontal lobe’s “most crucial stage is in early childhood…and it's dependent on authentic human interactions. So if your young child is spending all of his time in front of an iPad instead of chatting and playing with teachers and other children, his empathetic abilities—the near-instinctive way you and I can read situations and get a feel for other people—will be dulled, possibly for good.”(13) Proper frontal lobe development requires interaction; children must spend times with real humans in order to learn to understand circumstances and people—but the number of interactions diminishes dramatically if children spend approximately one day every week watching television. Television distracts and prevents a child from spending time with people, harming their social skills.

Reading, however, strengthens social skills by teaching children valuable traits and allowing them to encounter emotions and ideas. Shaun Dreisbach writes, “Reading is also a great way to improve kids’ concentration.”(14) Children spend time focused on one story; they learn to focus on a single item. Patience is valuable for young people to employ in talking with other children and adults, and is beneficial as an adult in relationships and work. Through books, children learn this virtue early on and discover the value of pushing through boring and long ideas. Education Connection writes,

"Think of the many crucial traits of a good conversationalist: the ability to give your full attention and be present in the moment, to wait for your partner to finish their thought before adding your own, and stay in the conversation, even if it has become tedious or a source of conflict. Sounds like a book, doesn’t it? Reading books helps children to develop that patience and concentration, making them better at conversation and conflict resolution."(15)

In books, the reader discovers the value in perseverance despite dullness, a beneficial skill in conversations. A child who focuses throughout boring sections of a book is better prepared to listen to people even if their thoughts are boring. Books also increase empathy. Education Connection writes that reading, “…allows children to experience a range of moods and emotions they aren’t likely to experience in everyday life. Experiencing these emotions in a ‘safe’ environment allows the child to think about how they might react in a similar situation, preparing them for future interactions. This makes their emotional development more well-rounded and mature.”(16) Readers feel a variety of emotions. Through books, children glimpse the heaviness of heartache, view the heights of happiness, see the satisfaction in success, perceive the profits of perseverance, and view the value of virtues; they are introduced to emotions in unique ways. Children experience these while around parents and loved ones who can help them process the emotions and understand the writings. Also, children endure different emotions without truly enduring the source of the emotion. For example, through a book a child can glimpse the sorrow of losing a family member without actually watching a loved one die. Granted, the child will not feel the emotions to the same degree, but he or she will watch the characters endure the circumstance and thereby better grasp the emotions. Grasping the emotions enables them to better understand real people enduring those emotions. Sarah Clarkson explains that, “Reading changes our consciousness on the most personal level by challenging us to consider the way someone else might experience life, and this is where compassion often begins.… Reading actually helps us to tune in to someone else’s emotion or point of view, and the better the writing, the more insight we are given.”(17) Reading allows children to glimpse new emotions or beliefs. When a child meets a real person holding a similar belief to that in a book, the child’s understanding increases. When a child encounters a real person experiencing a similar emotion to that in a story, the child’s compassion increases. Clarkson writes, “The kind of compassionate insight offered by a perceptive story is one that drives us toward connection. We are given the insight both to understand and to reach across the barriers of confusion or suspicion that so often separate us from the people we might come to know as friends, or even those who stand in need of our offered presence.”(18) Through books, children learn about the people around them, strengthening their ability to connect with and reach out to fellow humans. Reading improves interactions by teaching children valuable skills such as patience and concentration, and enabling young people to view new emotions and circumstances that increase compassion.

Television, though popular, endangers children’s minds and social skills, two areas reading benefits. By teaching children’s brains to think and allowing young people to view emotions, circumstances, and ideas, books better prepare children to thrive in the world. Dessert is not always wrong, and neither is television. However, the benefits of eating vegetables and meats outweigh the pleasures of eating dessert. While reading may appear entirely unpleasant or not as enjoyable as television, the numerous benefits are worth a parent’s struggle to convince their child to read. Eventually, children may discover reading’s pleasure that matches or exceeds television’s. Like steak requires more chewing than ice cream, reading requires more thinking and working than television. However, the rewards are wonderful—brains practice working, social skills increase, and children discover the pleasure and value contained in a book.

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Sources:

1. McDonough, Patricia. “TV Viewing Among Kids At an Eight-Year-High.” The Nielsen Company. https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2009/tv-viewing-among-kids-a... (accessed November 28, 2018).
2. Ibid
3. Clark, Christina. “Children’s and Young People’s Reading Today: Findings from the 2011 National Literacy Trust’s annual survey.” National Literacy Trust. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED541612.pdf (accessed November 28, 2018).
4. Ibid
5. Ibid
6. Margalit, Liraz. “What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids’ Brains.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/behind-online-behavior/201604/wh... (accessed November 28, 2018)
7. Ibid
8. Wren, Sebastian. “The Brain and Reading” Dokumen. https://dokumen.tips/documents/the-brain-and-reading-brain-and-reading-s... (accessed November 28, 2018)
9. Clarkson, Sarah. "Read for the Heart: Whole Books for Wholehearted Families." Anderson, IN: Apologia/WholeHeart, 2009, pages 36-37.
10. Ibid, 37
11. Ibid
12. Margalit, Liraz. “What Screen Time Can Really Do to Kids’ Brains.” Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/behind-online-behavior/201604/wh... (accessed November 28, 2018)
13. Ibid
14. Dreisbach, Shaun. “Social Skills Grade by Grade” Scholastic. https://www.scholastic.com/parents/family-life/parent-child/social-skill... (accessed November 30, 2018)
15. “How Reading Books Improves Social Skills” Education Connection. https://education-connection.org/reading-books-improves-social-skills/ (accessed November 30, 2018)
16. Ibid
17. Clarkson, Sarah. "Book Girl: A Journey Through the Treasures & Transforming Power of a Reading Life." Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2018, pages 156-157
18. Ibid, 157-158

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