Are Stiff Eyes Preventing Your Child from Reading

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Published: 02nd April 2009
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Can your children's eyes move in small jumps from left to right, following printed words on a page? Can they rapidly swing back and down to begin reading the next line? Can they pick out syllables and individual phonograms and assemble these into words?

If your children watch television for the national average of around 30 hours per week, they may be suffering from "stiff eyes". This is not a recognized medical condition - rather, it is a habit formed by watching a small screen from a distance of about two metres (sometimes unfortunately even closer). Children can see all the action without moving their eyes.

But when playing, children move their eyes in all directions, watching for obstacles, using their peripheral vision to see if someone is creeping up on them and focusing and re-focusing from very near to the far distance. This exercises the muscles around the eyes and provides the control needed when children start learning to read.

Children who have spent a lot of time in front of the television from an early age will suffer most. It begins at feeding time. Instead of watching the mother, the child's attention will be drawn by the strong light, flashing colours and movement of the television screen. The child will appear to be mesmerized, as indeed it is -research shows that brainwave patterns after a short period of viewing come to resemble the brainwave patterns of sleep. When these alpha waves appear on the encephalograph (recording equipment), the child's brain is in a mode that is highly receptive to taking in information without any critical thought or reflection. Like a sponge soaking up

whatever liquid it comes into contact with, the "open" brain will soak up every sight and sound, every attitude and every value it sees on the screen.

This is frightening enough, but, returning to the effect of this on reading ability, it seems that, because hands, wrist and arms are also immobile, writing ability can also be impaired - the child is not learning the fine motor control that is needed for holding a pencil and writing. Is this one reason why we see so many children holding a pencil in a clenched fist, rather than delicately balanced between thumb, index finger and second finger? Prolonged passive sitting doesn't do much for the spine and the neck, especially if the child slumps or sits in a poorly designed chair. Prolonged passive sitting does not promote deep breathing and oxygenation of the blood. If it is true that the development of intelligence in humans has been promoted by using tools, (intensified hand work produces expanded brain work), then passive, "non-tool using", TV viewing children may be taking humanity's IQ a step backwards!

Also poor pencil control will lead to slower development of reading ability. How? Quite simply, children who have trouble manipulating the pencil will have trouble writing; they will have difficulty in understanding their own writing; they will be concentrating so intently on forming the letter shapes (using an inefficient grip on the pencil) that they will focus on each letter's shape, forgetting about the sounds, forgetting about the word they are writing and certainly forgetting about the meaning of any sentence they are trying to write.

Compared with TV viewing, reading is hard, analytical work. The left hemisphere of the brain is working hard to put things in a logical order, scan printed letters, join them to make words, and sort out meaning from these words; the right hemisphere is working less hard, recognizing whole words that have become fixed in the child's "sight" vocabulary. But TV viewing is using only the right hemisphere, in a passive way, requiring no analytical thinking, no input from the viewer, no imagination - only recognition of the tiny winking dots that make up the pictures. Young viewers will pay almost no attention to sounds and words. If you don't believe this, ask them what the presenter or actor just said, or for some factual information that was said three minutes ago. So your child may be over-using the wholistic right hemisphere for 30 hours per week, while the analytical left hemisphere lags behind in its development. This means that the child's ability to learn the association between sounds and phonograms, to encode this into writing and to decode writing by reading (aloud or silently) could be severely impaired.

Strict standards for emissions are applied to microwave ovens - but not to television sets. Low frequency microwaves, especially close to the screen, can be quite potent and have been known to induce epileptic fits in children predisposed to epilepsy. A 1964 study in the US showed that children viewing 3-6 hours per day, Monday to Friday and 6-10 hours per day on weekends showed symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, irritability and loss of judgement. When TV was banned, the symptoms vanished within 2-3 weeks - but re-appeared as TV viewing was gradually re-introduced. So your children, especially if sitting closer than two metres could be showing some of these symptoms. The intense light could be overstimulating the brain, which responds by shutting down. The cumulative effect of this exposure is not known, but a major airline recently decided to play it safe and converted its conventional computer monitors to the flat screen type used on laptop computers which emit no microwave radiation.

So "stiff eyes" and "stiff hands", under utilization of left-brain thinking and ill-effects of radiation can severely retard children's reading and writing ability - and therefore retard their learning in all areas.

How many television shows do you see where the actors are sitting watching television? Not many, and then for a few seconds only. Television producers don't want to bore their audiences to tears by showing them pictures of people passively watching pictures. That passive viewing, with the eyes focused unmoving onto a bright, small screen, lets eye muscles stop working and makes it harder for children's eyes to perform the movements needed for reading. Fixed, staring, stiff eyes, immobilized by an average 30hrs/week of television viewing, have to be exercised. - Then they can perform the eye movements essential for reading.

Eyes, hands and brain functions have become intertwined over thousands of years. The hands running along a piece of wood sense a rough spot; the brain gets a message, 'rough', and tells the eyes to check that spot. The eyes then confirm the information. It works the other way when the eyes notice a flushed forehead, followed by a hand checking the temperature.

So to help loosen up your child's stiff eyes, find ways of exercising hands and eyes (the brain will follow) and the limbs. Try chasing the kids outside for some exercise after an hour's viewing.

Any sport or hobby, such as woodwork, needlepoint, gardening, and just about any physical actions such as sorting knives and forks, nuts and bolts and buttons, or cutting, painting, colouring, building cubby houses out of sheets and brooms - the list is endless - will get the hands and eyes moving and working with the brain in a co-ordinated way. This exercise also helps burn up the energy that builds up during television viewing, often erupting into aggressive behaviour when the set is switched off.

Be a model for imaginative behaviour - Help the children get started in play - but don't play for them. Use household materials: cardboard boxes, sheets, chairs, old clothes, rags etc. Make several suggestions to encourage them - Are you in a train?, Sounds like that car needs fixed., etc. Be an appreciative audience.

Increase family interaction - People are constantly amazed when they replace some television viewing time with family interaction. The basis of all relationships is communication, so encourage it in your family by having sit-down meals together at least once a day and use this time to converse. Topics to start include: the day's events, friends, teachers etc. Bedtime is also a good communication time. Other suggestions include: board games, card games, shared projects such as model building etc.

Encourage direct experience of the real world - This involves exercise as well as helping children understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Visit libraries together, zoos, parades, public performances, go on a trip to a new place. Introduce children to people who, or places that are outside their field of experience: the elderly, young, handicapped, people from a different ethnic group, tours around factories, hospitals, etc.

Involve your children in creative activities - Sports, hobbies, painting, dancing, playing musical instruments, singing... the list is endless. This often involves some 'taxi' driving, but consider car pooling with other parents.

If your children have been on a heavy television diet for some years, weaning may be a little difficult at first. But when the rich, real world begins to open its doors, they'll be getting so much fulfilment that you won't get many requests for television.

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