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Too Much Television for Children

Raising Children in a TV World

By Chris Jordan

According to all the research, there simply isn’t any educational value for children under the age of two to watch television. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that children under two years old have no screen time at all, yet 90% of parents allow their children to watch “some” TV and a portion of them feel that television watching is important for their child. After age two, the AAP recommends no more than two hours of total screen time per day; screen time includes computers, video games, iPads, etc. Television viewing has been linked to speech delays, obesity, speech problems, aggression, and most recently it has been linked with trouble concentrating.

Let your child watch TV? They are not going to Harvard, some imply. Mine aren’t either, if that makes you feel better.

Really, the researchers make it seem that dire, don’t they? Maybe they should come over and babysit.

In a new study from the University of Virginia, children were divided into three groups: those who watched a fast-paced cartoon, those who watched an educational cartoon, and those who spent the time drawing. After nine minutes the children were given a variety of tests to measure their executive function. The children who watched a fast paced cartoon, in this case SpongeBob, performed significantly worse with only 15% of this group passing the test, compared to 35% of the educational TV watchers, and 70% of the kids who spent the time drawing.

Another study
in Australia has found a strong correlation between the amount of time spent watching television and life expectancy. Every hour of television watched is associated with a 22 minute reduction in life expectancy.

This past weekend I rented and watched the new Transformers movie with my kids. After it was over I turned to my son and said, “Well, that was 2.5 hours of my life I won’t get back.” Turns out I should have said, “Well, that brought me 55 minutes closer to death!” Yes, I realize that it isn’t an exact science and that we are speaking of averages as a culmination of life’s choices, not a singular experience of watching a movie. But maybe if we did think of television that way we would be more mindful of our choices.

I almost never watch television. I honestly just never think to turn it on. It never became a habit for me.

I spent my early years without a television. When we got a television I was allowed to watch Little House on the Prairie and the Walt Disney Sunday night movie. But in the dark days before cable television there wasn’t much else on TV, it certainly wasn’t the industry it is today driving kids’ fashion choices, music tastes, electronic gadgets, and an endless list of “needs” I never really remember feeling like I was missing out and most of my friends had similar restrictions. In fact, the father of one of my friends had hooked up an exercise bike to power the television. Anyone who wanted to watch tv had to ride the exercise bike at a rate high enough to generate enough power. Not surprisingly, they seldom found it worth it. The same rule also applied to the parents.

When I in turn had children, I did not own a television. We did not get one until about 5 or 6 years ago. Because of this I can tell a huge difference between my kids who have had television access for most of their lives and my children who spent their earlier formative years doing other things. My older children never turn on the television. They also never say they are bored. They never grew up with the expectation of being passively entertained, like my younger children have. They have taught themselves to play musical instruments, read extensively, performed scientific experiments, made drawings or paintings, learned to cook, made up games, built huge Lego or K’nex creations that took days to construct. People always remark on their extensive vocabularies. And to this day they will pick up their guitars and teach themselves new songs when they don’t have anything to do. While I could happily live the rest of my days without having to hear an acoustic version of Hotel California, I much prefer that over the sound of the Disney Channel.

My younger children love television. LOVE it. It doesn’t matter how many times I tell them there is no television during the school week, they persist in asking, hopeful that one day the answer will be different. They complain of boredom more than their older siblings ever have and their solution usually seems to be requesting a TV show. They are much more materialistic, always wanting to pause the television and show me the latest and greatest toy that they want.

I think television watching becomes a habit. It is something we model for our children. I don’t want my children to develop that habit any more than I want them to start smoking or drinking. Time spent doing one thing is time not spent doing another. I think that is what bothers me the most about my kids watching TV, not that I have a problem with TV per se, but that they could be using their time more fruitfully.

I read an interview with Sheryl Crowe years ago in which she said she taught herself to play guitar while she was home from school for months recovering from an illness. It was out of boredom that she discovered her musical talent. What would the average teenager do nowadays? Probably take pouty face photos of themselves in a dimly lit bathroom mirror and post them on Facebook, watch all the reality television they could handle, and surf the Internet. None of these things would enhance their lives in any way.

A few weeks ago my twelve-year old son spent a week at home with me recovering from a concussion. He wasn’t able to read since that made his headache return, nor was he able to do any sort of physical activities. Invariably everyone remarked that he must have been able to watch a lot of TV, as if that is the only means by which someone could entertain themselves for long stretches of time. He ate a lot. He cooked new foods, baked cakes and cookies. He practiced his guitar. He attempted new magic tricks. He played with clay. He drew pictures. He sat outside on the patio and was just still and quiet with his own thoughts. I read him chapters from a book he was working on. But the television didn’t come on.

I hope that makes up for the SpongeBob marathons that are often turned on the television on the weekends.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Published November 22, 2011. Last updated June 27, 2018.
Chris Jordan
About the Author

Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children. Yes, the...

Chris Jordan began blogging at Notes From the Trenches in 2004 where she writes about her life raising her children in Austin, Texas.

Oh, she has seven of them. Yes, children.
Yes, they are all hers.
No she’s not Catholic or Mormon. Though she wouldn’t mind having a sister-wife because holy hell the laundry never stops.
Yes, she finally figured out what causes it. That’s why her youngest is almost 6.
Yes, she has a television.

She enjoys referring to herself in the third person.

If you would like to submit a question for Chris to answer publicly, please do so to adviceforparentsoftweens[at]gmail[dot]com.

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