A recent paper from the journal Pediatrics, reports that American children (8 months – 8 years) are exposed to an average of nearly 4 hours of background television; infants and toddlers (8 months – 2 years) are getting almost 6 hours of background exposure.
While there have been many studies on the adverse effects of watching too much, or age inappropriate television, the effects background exposure has not been as extensively studied.
A few studies have linked excessive background television exposure with reduced attention spans, lower quality parent-child relationship, lowered reading memory and other cognitive deficits. Whether you are watching it or not, it seems that television is not doing people much good.
Pups don’t grow up watching television, but if the human-family is getting background television exposure, then so are they. Are the effects similar to what we observe in humans?
To explore how mice are affected by background television exposure the researchers exposed mice to 6 hours of nightly ‘television’
To simulate background television exposure, the cage was set up with 4 colored lights and audio at 70db from the cartoon channel. Lights were connected to a photorythmic modulator to change colors in sync with the audio.
Every night, for 42 days, the mice were subjected to 6 hours of ‘non-normative stimulation’, followed by 10 days of standard conditions. The mice were then given 5 common tests that measure anxiety, risk-taking, memory and spatial learning.
- Light Dark Latency – a simple box with opaque and clear section and a hole to travel between them. Mice generally prefer darker enclosed spaces over bright open spaces, but they also have a tendency to explore. This conflict between safety and risk is at the heart of this and the next two anxiety tests.
- Elevated Plus Maze – a “+”shaped structure, 1 meter above the floor with safety walls on two arms and open on the others. The open (unwalled) arms are horizontally oriented.
- Open field test – is a brightly lit, square open field. Mice will tend to navigate close to the walls as they are inclined to avoid open areas.
- Novel Object Recognition – mice are introduced (in the open field box) to 2 identical items for 5 minutes and then taken away. One hour later they are reintroduced to the field but one of the items has been changed. Mice will interact with the new object more than a familiar item. Does the mouse remember an item they’ve seen before?
- Barnes Maze – an elevated circle with 20 holes, one leads to an escape tunnel. After four days of training can the mouse navigate to the escape tunnel?
Exposure to what the researchers term ‘non-normative’ stimulation results in behavioral changes and cognitive deficits. The mice showed decreased anxienty and increased risk-taking (as per their increased tendency to explore) as well as hyperkinetic tendencies. In all three anxiety tests, over-stimulated mice spent more time in open areas but also travelled greater distances than the control mice.
The overstimulated group also showed deficits in memory and learning. In the Novel Object Recognition test, overstimulated group showed a deceased ability to discriminate between the old and new object. With the Barnes Maze, they made more mistakes and took more time finding the hole.
I think it is safe to say that because we see similar results in humans and mice that our dogs (and cats) are likely to experience similar effects. This is something every breeder, puppy raiser and parent should consider.
If you are brining up baby (dog or human) and you are not watching it, turn off the damn television.
Christakis DA, Ramirez JS, & Ramirez JM (2012). Overstimulation of newborn mice leads to behavioral differences and deficits in cognitive performance. Scientific reports, 2 PMID: 22855702 OPEN ACCESS
Lapierre MA, Piotrowski JT, & Linebarger DL (2012). Background Television in the Homes of US Children. Pediatrics, 130 (5), 839-46 PMID: 23027166 OPEN ACCESS