TV Viewing for Children - Family - Parenting

TV Viewing for Children   by Nitin Pandey

in Family / Parenting    (submitted 2012-11-29)

‘Television has changed a child from an irresistible force to an immovable object' - Author Unknown

The 1970s-80s: ‘Gadgets' was a word we hadn't learnt at school, nor were there many of them in the house to worry about using a collective noun for such stuff. All we had was an antiquated and enfeebled TV set that lay in the corner of the living room which came to life only during ‘Different Strokes' and ‘Star Trek' or may be even during ‘Nukkad'. A twenty- four-hour-day was a really long stretch for children to be able to explore varied outdoor and indoor recreational options such as bike riding, roller skating, rope jumping, play dough, art and building materials, paper origami, Frisbee, blocks, hop-scotch, philately, carom board, reading, or even listening to contemporary music and singing along rapturously.

Cut to 2012: The house is a stash-house of swank gadgets like the LCD TV, laptop, iPod, iPhone, iPad, X-Box, PSP, gaming consoles and the works. The little moppet sits glued to the "one-eyed babysitter" (as parents sometime refer to the TV) with a bag full of potato chips in one hand and cola in the other; gobbling and gulping mindlessly while sitting there for what seems like a lifetime.

By juxtaposing the two eras, it is evident that screens of all kinds have become easy substitutes for the inner life experiences and personal interactions that children need to have. Most kids appear calm and extremely attentive while watching television. This by no means implies that they're attaining tranquility along with a heavy dose of good values from this ‘mental solitary confinement'. Actually, the little brains go into the autopilot mode the moment they glue themselves to TV. Listen to this if you don't believe me:- When my son was a little boy, he would watch his favorites for a few hours at a stretch each day; and I, like a typical working mom, felt like a load was lifted off me for a while (yes, it's easier to sit them in front of the television while we're getting things done), only until the day I got a bolt from the blue. I noticed that while he would gawk at the TV mindlessly with his mouth agape, he ceased to be in sync with his immediate surroundings. He would not notice the presence of another person in the same room, would not even hear the doorbell ring, and worst still, stopped noticing people (even strangers) crossing by! Now this was the perfect recipe for disaster. I shudder to think that this state of trance could have compromised our safety one day. This was a wake-up call for me without a snooze option!

Television- The Antagonist

Sue Palmer points out in her book Toxic Childhood that kids lose out socially, developmentally and educationally when they give in to the pleasures of watching television. As per the book, children simply do not learn from adults canned on TV as they do from flesh and blood ones in everyday life.

TV can prove to be a big canker-worm as time spent watching it takes away from important activities such as academics, reading, playing, exercising, family interactions and social development. Children also learn information from television that may be inappropriate. Violence, nudity, inappropriate language, sexual innuendo, drugs and alcohol abuse are common themes of television programs. Young children are impressionable and may assume that what they see on television is acceptable and the norm. As a result, television also exposes children to behaviors and attitudes that may be distressing and difficult to comprehend. More and more children are simply retreating from family life into a virtual world in which technology is a poor and dangerous substitute for human interaction.

To put it all down simply, children who watch a lot of television are likely to:

- Suffer from impaired academic performance and therefore, lower grades at school.

- Lack concentration in academic subjects as retention of academic concepts conveniently gets replaced by recent or more impactful TV content, which is also known as 'candy for the mind'.

- Read fewer books and play less.

- Be couch potatoes and skip physical activity altogether.

- Snack unhealthy and out of habit rather than need and become overweight.

- Not develop hobbies or other creative activities.

- Become day-dreamers as their favorite programs keep replaying in their minds.

- Have irregular sleep as the more TV children watch, especially at night; the more likely they are to have trouble falling asleep.

Television- The Philanthropist

Do not misconstrue my effusive discourse against TV as a ‘stop TV campaign'. TV is not all dark and destructive. Let me put my cards on the table. I am firmly in the camp which believes that when monitored well, TV can prove to be a ‘good Samaritan'; but only for children well past toddler-hood. Make sure they watch programs, not television. Rather than allowing your child to sit down and watch whatever flashes in front of her eyes, use the TV listings to select carefully what she is going to watch. Turn off the set when that program is over. There are many good shows on TV related to travel, wildlife, nature, history and also pure entertainment. These will provide a tremendous fillip to the child's experiences and imagination. Some of these are:

Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, Discovery Science, Discovery Turbo, Fox Traveler, National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo Adventure, Nat Geo Wild, History Channel, etc.

Parents- The Sentinel

We as parents are easily giving in to the temptation of relying on television instead of our ingenuity to mollify and occupy kids. Let your child watch TV if she must, but be her TV watchdog to ensure that she obtains only the positive values from there. It is important that a few stringent rules be set, explained to children and then followed consistently.

Some of the guidelines you could follow are:

- Monitor programs being watched and select developmentally appropriate shows like the ones mentioned above.

- Budget your child's electronic entertainment time to maximum one hour a day.

- Balance other important activities like studying, free play, family bonding time, meal time, etc.

- Refuse to let the children see shows known to be violent, as violence in ‘reel life' desensitizes children to violence in ‘real life'.

- Keep children under the age of two as screen-free as possible. A young child's brain and visual/auditory sense cannot cope with dramatic shifts in contexts, scenes and time frames and loses focus every few seconds.

- Become an active participant by sitting with your child when she watches television if possible and encourage discussions about what she is seeing.

- Advertisements promoting junk food and other child products tend to have a major impact on the child. It could lead the child to gain excess weight, eating disorders, becoming demanding for new products and gadgets. Their brain is still developing and is weaker than ours. Like it or not, it is a lot easier for advertisers to create needs in their brain, to trick them in fact. The best way to handle this is to make a game out of this: First, for a few advertisements, explain to the child the trick that the advertisers are trying to play on her to fool her into buying that product. Then, encourage her to spot similar tricks in the other advertisements. My husband used this trick with our son quite effectively.

- Break the mealtime TV habit as it increases the child's screen time. The habit also encourages mindless munching, which can lead to weight gain.

- Keep TV out of the child's bedroom. Consider putting the TV in the drawing room so that you can monitor the programs that are being watched. This way you can also ensure that it is switched off during common family time.

- Eliminate background TV as it's likely to draw your child's attention.

- Be a good role model by limiting your own screen time. Children learn more from watching you than from all the lectures that you may give them.

- Designate one day a week as a screen-free day.

Some of these guidelines work really well with younger children. Their habits are still forming and if you regulate television viewing early in their lives, they will carry that lesson forever.

Mission: ‘Wean Off the Screen”

Breaking the TV habit can be more difficult in certain cases where the child is already addicted to the screen for extended hours a day and resists your curfew by whining and complaining. Many parents may find themselves concluding that the cost to family harmony of giving up television far outweighs the benefits of cutting down on time spent watching TV. However, you really can cut down on your child's time spent watching television, and even eliminate it altogether if need be. Here are some very simple ways to introduce a limited television schedule into your child's routine:

- Cut television time by half: Start small. Allow your kids to choose their top one or two programs and that's it. Whining and complaining shall follow. But then let them know you mean business. If your kids still watch quite a bit of television, try cutting another 50% in about a month.

- Track their progress: Get a calendar and place stars or stickers on the days they quit watching without whining or moping. Once they collect enough stars, treat them to whatever they like most.

- Invest in some board games: Play board games with them like Uno, Connect 4, Scrabble, Boggles etc once a week till it becomes a routine.

- Get active: Spend time outside as a family, and aim to get your child interested in activities that don't require TV. Encourage exercise, roller skating, biking, playing with friends etc. Your child's brain will develop more quickly and your child will have less reason to watch TV. TV is an alternative to boredom for under-stimulated kids, so if your child is gravitating toward the TV, it's a sure sign she's missing out on something better to do.

- Set a Hard Limit: Television can be very addictive to children. Weaning your child from his obsessive television watching requires dedication and the ability to tune out of your child's protests. Stay firm on your desire to wean your child from the television. As long as you do not give in, the behavior will eventually stop.

When my son suffered from his TV-induced affliction, I enrolled him for Taekwondo sessions and tennis for an hour everyday, which he initially resisted with all his might. We started going for swimming on weekends as a family and soon he started looking forward to it. To stay firm on my TV budgeting, all I had to do is remind myself of the dreadful consequences of his becoming a TV addict. The payoff: Gradually he stopped missing watching TV. Presently, he hates to miss even a single session of tennis and is completely bored of television. Our television lies ignored and seemingly slighted in one corner of the living room.

The Verdict

Let me wrap up this feature by stating that the best way to approach television is to think of it as a sweet treat. You want your kids to satiate their cravings in moderation without allowing them to overindulge. So, keep the TV- watching down to a minimal level, which means that when it's on, it's quality. Remember, junk TV is as much of a problem as is junk food and giving up TV can set your child up for a lifetime of success and well-being.

Not being a television fan myself, I can't help quoting Roald Dahl:

“So, please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookcase on the wall.” ~Roald Dahl