When I first became a mother I was determined to do everything right. My daughter was NEVER going to watch television or play Video Games. We were always going to read, and think, and use our imaginations. Well, reality hit pretty hard one evening when I went to get J5 from my parent’s house after my husband and I had been on a date. To my surprise, my mom had watched Old Yeller with my 18 month old daughter, the same daughter who was NEVER going to watch TV. Of course, I wasn't angry with my mother, she was the best free babysitter around!
When I walked into the room and saw J5 watching movies on the bed she jumped to her feet and said, “Mommy, I’m watching the dog old yeller!” The excitement in her voice was contagious and I found myself anxiously asking her to tell me all about it. “The boys had this big dog and it chased raccoons and trapped the mean pigs, but then the wolf bitted it and it died but it’s okay because the boys got a NEW PUPPY!!”
J5 loved dogs and horses from the time she was 10 months old. We would read books and she would anxiously point out all four legged creatures with excitement. She loved to play with our own little dog and followed her throughout the house. Because she loved animals so much Old Yeller was a great choice for her first movie. I also liked that it had real people, rather than cartoons. But now I was really faced with a dilemma; J5 loved Old Yeller so much, could I continue to uphold the ‘no TV EVER’ rule? (which had obviously changed to the ‘no TV EVER, except at Grandma’s house' rule.)
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children in the United States watch an average of 3-4 hours of TV per day. This amount blows me away! The AACAP warns parents that children who watch excessive amounts of television are at risk of doing poorly in school, becoming over weight, not getting enough exercise, and reading fewer books than those who do not watch too much TV. These children are also exposed to risky and immoral behavior, including sexual situations, drugs, alcohol, violence, and a general disrespect for others.
I have personally noticed excessive screen time influencing my children with regards to the following issues:
Exposure to Inappropriate Material
Lack of Motivation to be Active
These issues are obviously not problems I want my kids to be faced with, so maybe the no TV rule was legitimate?
Now, 7 years after the first viewing of Old Yeller I have learned and adapted my views on television for children.
I learned a great deal from J5 in the weeks that followed Old Yeller at Grandma’s house. First of all I was amazed at how much of the story she actually understood and remembered! We talked about different scenes every day for weeks. Within a week she was tying animals to her rocking horse in a makeshift travois and begging me to feed her bread and milk (a request she makes regularly still). Her ability to imagine and pretend skyrocketed as she acted out catching pigs, carrying calves on her shoulders, and cooking over an open (pretend) fire. She owned three stuffed yellow dogs, one of which accompanied her EVERYWHERE! The verdict was obvious, J5 had benefited GREATLY from watching a movie with her Grandparents.
Exposure to Inappropriate Material
Unfortunately not all of our television watching experiences have been positive. I recall a Dove soap commercial that came on one day after watching a cartoon with my kids when my 3 year old boy asked me why is ‘that lady naked on TV’ and another time when my 4 year old daughter asked ‘what is a tampon for and what does sexy mean’?
Does TV, even kids channels, expose young people to adult content too soon? YES, YES, and MORE YES YES! Because of this very simple fact, the kids in my house are NEVER allowed to watch TV unsupervised. Not because I don’t ‘trust’ them, (they are too young to distrust) but because they don’t understand or know any better. To avoid unwanted glances of inappropriate material we have a ‘no live TV’ rule. All of the shows my kids watch have been recorded on the DVR and ALL commercials are skipped over. No exceptions! (I particularly love this rule during the holiday season when toy commercials are playing in overtime mode.)
I also know, from my own experience, that when children watch too much TV they become irritable, aggressive, defiant and demanding. I can always tell when my kids have played too many computer games or watched too much TV because they become impossible to live with. They argue about following simple rules and balk when asked to fulfill their daily responsibilities. If days, or even weeks have passed without iPad games and cartoons the general attitude of the house is much more pleasant. The whining slows to a gentle crawl and the toys are played with more often. Almost all young children have behavior problems at some time or another (if your kids don’t just wait, your time will come) but limiting screen time, or even getting rid of it completely can help. Of course, this means more of the entertainment responsibilities will come to lay on YOUR shoulders, but again, the behavior problems may be escalating because the kids need more mommy or daddy time. Turning off the TV will help.
Lack of Motivation to be Active
My kids love to visit their grandparents. They love playing basketball in the driveway, riding bikes down the unoccupied streets, riding the horses in the back yard, and playing on the slip and slide. I hear MANY times each week, “When are we going to Grandma Payne’s house?” We LOVE grandma’s house! Besides all of the wonderful outdoor things we do while visiting my in-laws we also love to play the Wii. We have had big competitions, intense tournaments, and hours of loud laughter while circling the game console. I love that my kids get the opportunity to play video games without us actually having one in our home; we especially enjoy playing together in the winter when it is cold and dark. However, I am always amazed when my very athletic and highly energetic 6 year old decides he would rather sit on the couch and drive a PRETEND motorcycle than go outside and ride a REAL horse. How many 6 year olds would LOVE TO RIDE A REAL HORSE?? Something about a television screen sucks the life right out of kids and snuffs out their flame of motivation, causing them to miss out on so many great memories and experiences. In our house, this issue has proven to be the MOST difficult to deal with. After all is said and done my kids end up with the decision to either participate in whatever activity the rest of the family is involved with OR to sit in the bedroom alone (with nothing electronic around).
In September of 2011 an article was posted in the New York Times by Roni Caryn Rabin about the television show Spongebob SquarePants. This article discussed the following study: “Researchers report that 4-year-olds who had just watched the fast-paced fantasy cartoon 'SpongeBob SquarePants' did worse on tests of attention and problem-solving than young children who watched a slower-paced educational program or spent time drawing.” The children who watched the cartoon were operating at half the capacity compared to other children in the study. Nickelodeon responded to questions by arguing that the show was intended for children from the age of 6-11 but the study showed that almost 40% of Spongebob viewers were from the age of 2-5.
So what makes Spongebob Squarepants so different from other, more educational, cartoons? Simply put, it is the excessive amount of movement. When children watch fast paced, high action television their brains are working overtime to try to process all of the information being thrown at them. They become exhausted (perhaps causing more behavior problems) trying to sort out the extreme amounts of stimuli. And what’s even worse than this? Experts believe that fast paced television shows may train a child’s brain to be incapable of focusing long enough to process information that is NOT “so fantastic”. Let’s just face it folks, most of life is ‘not so fantastic’. Teaching our children to pay attention to slow moving entertainment (like books and old movies; think Old Yeller) may be the greatest educational gift we can give. In a world of instant gratification and disproportionate amounts of excitement our children need to learn to pay attention during things that move slowly; like math class and family dinner. Start your kids off by watching slow movies, even movies that have real people rather than cartoons. They will learn how to pay attention much better!
So, did I abandon my “NO TELEVISION EVER” rule? Obviously, YES! TV has many great benefits and my children have learned many many things about life, science, reading, math, history, geography and relationships by watching TV. Do they get to watch whatever they want, whenever they want to? NO. Our screen time is strictly monitored and supervised, which at times can be very annoying (both to the kids, AND to me) but in the end I am comfortable knowing they aren’t viewing something they shouldn’t and they have learned to love and APPRECIATE any viewing time they do get. Nothing feels better as a parent than when your kids appreciate something you provide them with. Kids aren’t entitled to watch TV. There is no law that says I must give my kids TV; food and water, yes; but TV, NO.
Here is a quick list of the Television rules in our home.
No TV until 18 months old and very limited (limited as in a handful, or two, of minutes) until 2 ½ years old.
One 20 minute cartoon, unless watching a full length movie as a family.
No TV or computer games without permission from a parent who is willing to supervise.
No TV until all homework and chores are complete.
Fighting over the TV turns it off immediately.
Some of my kids favorite TV shows and movies include:
Go Diego Go
Max and Ruby
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse
Winnie the Pooh Classics
Where the Red Fern Grows
Swiss Family Robison
The Sound of Music
Bed Knobs and Broom Sticks
Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken
The Man from Snowy River
The Neverending Story
What TV shows have your kids benefited from watching?