This post may seem a bit long but it is a point close to my heart. I really hate surveys that keep on telling parents how useless they are – and what damage they are doing to their kids! This one – about telly – gets me particularly hot under the collar as we ALL know our kids spend more than 40 minutes a day watching the screen but feel compelled to lie when asked about it (survey sake, etc)
After listening to a radio chat show I wrote this following article for the Irish Examiner and although they accepted the piece (and said very nice things about it, thank you) they could not publish it as the principal in question in the article did not want to be named. The editor at Examiner said without her name, the piece would be too anecdotal, but she will keep it on file nonetheless.
Still, here it is for all those brave parents out there who are sick of being told what is right and wrong about their parenting skills by yet another faceless survey…………
IN DEFENCE OF TELEVISION FOR CHILDREN
A recent survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics which recommended “No TV at all for children under the age of 2 and, for older children, only one to two hours of educational programming at most” has served little purpose but to hand parents yet another stick with which to beat themselves with.
Numerous studies have labelled television as the instigator of all types of problems in children ranging from attention deficit disorder, violent behaviour, poor performance in school and obesity. It is no wonder that guilt-laden parents feel compelled to lie about the amount of time their children spend in front of telly. In a recent radio chat-show on the topic, most parents who phoned in were adamant that their child spent only twenty minutes per day in front of the screen and that was merely to enable that parent to have a shower or some other brisk task. Some survey results can not only misleadingly highlight parenting flaws but can also be flawed themselves by not being socioeconomically adjusted and by choosing case-comparisons that only support current theory.
I am not too ashamed to admit that in our household one would need an oven-mitt to turn the telly off! It is on all day entertaining various age groups of children at different times, yet my children are neither over-weight nor under-exercised. Surely, sitting still and watching television is as passive an activity as sitting still and reading a book? Both are engaging the child in a solitary, sedentary activity, yet one is advocated and the other dissuaded. Granted, there are some unsatisfactory programmes just there are some unsuitable books – the crux of the matter is user discretion. Parents need to judge for themselves what role television will play in their family without their integrity constantly undermined by negative surveys. There are many benefits that television can offer children both educationally and entertainingly.
Quality programming can teach basic academic skills such as addition, counting, scientific fundamentals, language skills and etiquette. New worlds can be opened for children from the comfort and safety of their sofa, where they can travel the globe, see exotic animals, learn about different cultures , diverse lifestyles and historical places that they would not otherwise encounter in their local community. Child orientated programming carry pro-social messages with optimistic role models who can have a beneficial effect on behaviour and even influence positive lifestyle changes. Assistant director for research at Sesame Workshop, Jennifer Kotler, stated that “We do not ignore this research (April Pediatric survey) but more is needed on variables that could affect the impact of early exposure to television, including whether content or watching TV with a parent makes a difference.” Sesame Workshop produces a host of children’s programmes including the mainstay “Sesame Street” and Jennifer went on to say that “There is a lot of research…. a lot of it supports the positive benefits of educational programming.”
A retired school principal told me that she could “tell at a glance children who did not have television at home.” I presumed she would say that those children would be better read or better behaved and was amazed to hear her say that in certain instances, they “didn’t have a clue!” She explained that in Geography, discussing weather patterns, she would talk about isobars as seen on the weather report and those without television “didn’t know what she was meaning.” Another teacher said “in the junior classes, television characters such as Dora the Explorer and Bob the Builder serve as good ice-breakers amongst children” and they “act as common denominator for playground conversations and friendship forging.”
Dr Linda Pagani, psychosocial professor at Université de Montréal and author of “Toddlers and TV Early Exposure, Negative and Long Term Impact” claims that “Common sense would have it that TV exposure replaces time that could be spent engaging in other developmentally enriching activities and tasks which foster cognitive, behavioural and motor development.” No mention is made of children needing “downtime” – and therefore makes for a lopsided survey. Today’s child is almost “overscheduled” with many children participating in multiple extracurricular activities. The impact of shuttling kids from one activity to the next has a heavy cost on family time and instead of playing with friends, or relaxing, children are involved in organized, structured activities with constant supervision and stimulation. A child mindlessly watching telly is not necessarily indicative of a child on a slippery slope to obesity and future classroom trauma, but perhaps just a child having some necessary time-out.
Helen Fisher, Biological anthropologist, was quoted in Kellog M.A, “How America Really Watches TV” by saying “For millions of years, humans have been programmed to live in small groups around the campfire. Having the constant background of TV gives us a sense of familiarity and well being. Human beings need motion, sights, sounds, activity around us, and TV provides that. It doesn’t really matter how many channels we’ve got, because we’re connecting with the constant commotion and babble of the campsite, pure and simple.” This theory is reflected too in entertainment professional , Dan Vilter’s view on the emergence of entertainment and the “first” theatre. Dan claims that in sitting around an ancient campfire, sheltered and safe, people would turn to conversation – those involved in the hunt that day relaying, and even acting it out – for those who were not present, thereby bringing to life the thrill of the hunt to all. Today, given smaller family units, perhaps the TV babbling to itself in the corner of the living room even though no-one is watching or listening to it, can be likened to a senile uncle in an extended family.
Watching Television together, as a family can be agreeably advantageous, for example, the entire family can be comfortable and relaxing in the same room thereby promoting physical closeness. Also, shared-viewing can be the catalyst of family discussion on a controversial or sensitive issue – seeing something on screen together may make it easier for children to ask the necessary questions to clarify things as well as allowing parents to monitor a child’s reaction to what they seeing.
If parents teach children “critical viewing skills” i.e. the ability to differentiate between fact and fiction or a real family vs. a make-believe family, then television can be informative and fun. Children can then develop critical thinking skills about society and the wider world. Even advertising, which can be intrusive at best and instigate the “I want” syndrome can be used as an educational tool. Parents can develop a child’s analytical skills by explaining the truth behind advertising and encouraging them to spot any deceptive selling tactics. Watching children’s reactions to certain advertisements can save on expensive Christmas blunders and help parents tailor gift lists accordingly.
Daniel Anderson, prominent researcher on the subject, sums up brilliantly by saying, “I hope the broader impact of my research will increase awareness at many levels so that we can be cognizant of both the promise and the peril of what we are doing.”