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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

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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  • jL

    November 22, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    My dream is for my kids to be like your older ones! I think it is really interesting how different your older ones are from the younger ones!
    I grew up with the TV on all the time as did my husband and I am working really hard to break that habit. It is taking baby steps but we are getting there.

  • Lo

    November 22, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I am trying to break the TV cycle too. We grew in a country where TV was some sort of luxury so even now that everyone has it we “compete” by buying the biggest one, the new one. There is no way a house is complete without one and especially without discussing the things we see on TV. My kids are small, 3 years and 7 months and i am trying to break the cycle, i am trying to teach my little girl that TV is not all that is to entertainment. I’d love for it to be simply a tool and not the tool. an argument is that TV shows you the world and i agree with this but i always argue “What is the point on seeing the world when you haven’t seen where you live?”. My argument is always “At first we crawl, we learn to walk and then we run. You learn about your house, the surroundings and then the world”. It takes some effort

  • DMD

    November 23, 2011 at 9:32 am

    We grew up with the TV (my husband and I both) pretty intensively. Always on. With our son we vowed it would be different. We own a TV but only for movies (no cable). We do have a Hulu subscription and watch certain TV shows once in a while, usually on the iPad to be perfectly honest! We LOVE this way of life. The house is always peaceful and there’s never that consistent background noise of an annoying TV. When visiting my husband’s parents, I find their constant TV watching (it’s left on even when they’re not home!) to be stressful to my family. Their evenings aren’t spent talking, like ours, but zoned out in front of the TV (both in-laws consistently fall asleep in their recliners). They always bring my 1-yo into the TV room with them, and I bite my tongue because it’s temporary. But back to the original point, it’s also SO good for adults not to have a TV that their entertainment revolves around, either! We don’t have one in our room – just that main one for movies – and I’m so happy we made that decision when we got married 🙂

  • Becki

    November 23, 2011 at 10:40 am

    We also made the decision to turn off the t.v. We cancelled our cable, and only have one t.v. in our room for movies. My daughter just turned two, and for the first two years of her life never saw television. It’s amazing to see the difference between her and her cousins (all are around the same age) that have “grown up” on t.v. She talks more, is more interactive, and can play quietly by herself. I’m sure some of that is disposition, but I look at her and really believe we made the right decision for our family.

  • Jill G

    November 23, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    We read some of the same research in “Brain Rules for Baby.” Around 3 months old, we decided no TV for our son. The only time he sees it is when my husband puts on an occasional football game. Even then he is mesmerized by the commercials. We even swtiched to a baby sitter who wasn’t as TV reliant. It was hard for to turn off about a week, although I don’t know if I could’ve handled my maternity leave without it. Like Becki, people are amazed at his attention span and how he can play nice by himself and we definitely see a difference in his cousins. We have just cancelled our cable and will only be internet streaming the shows we watch. We hope to do more traveling with all the money we are saving (about $100 per month!). When he was about 6 months old, my sister’s in-laws were like, what are his favorite shows? They looked at me like I had 4 heads when I said he doesn’t watch TV. Thanks for this, Chris. I really enjoyed it.

  • May

    November 24, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    Awesome article!

    I’m curious though, as the new stepmom of a 10 year old boy, what sort of activities do you (anyone! please!) suggest that he can do instead of watching TV and playing video games? When he was at our house last weekend he spent literally 16 hours a day staring at one screen or another! Not cool! It’s pretty cold outside at this time of year where we live, but there’s got to be something he can do instead.

  • Emily

    November 26, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    We don’t use tv with out 14month old. We did entice her to watch some YoGabbaGabba in efforts to make our 5day move across the country easier, but ended up only using about 1hr of time for watching. Instead, she and I read a lot of books (over and over and over), sang songs, etc. Now, she probably sees an average of 30min of tv a week and I’d like to keep that. Honestly, she’s not even awake enough to spend time watching tv. When would we go outside (it’s cold here in Idaho, but she has winter wear)? When would we sit and play together if the tv was on? She has only, on average, 8-9 hours of awake time every day and that includes meals. There’s no time for tv. On the other hand, she does see us on the computer and I wonder what that screen time means to her.

  • Emily

    November 26, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    I will say this, also. My 14month old is getting evaluated for speech delays. Regardless of our ‘no tv’ rules. Her 2 little friends that are the same age seem to be regular tv watchers and have a much larger vocabulary and are much more vocally interactive. Sometimes I wonder if any of it really makes any difference in the big picture. Atleast, hopefully, my child won’t be so ‘bored’ all the time.

  • Jennifer James

    November 27, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    My family has been TV free since our girls were babies save for a brief two year period when we thought we were missing something. Our girls are 13 and 10 now and spend their days drawing, writing, reading, running, playing, cooking, filming themselves with their camcorders, and using their computers and on and on. I am so glad they don’t rely on TV. When we travel, though, we let them go crazy on Cartoon Network. We think it’s a great balance. 

  • Sid

    November 30, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    We don’t have cable but my 2yo daughter watches some Sesame Street on DVD almost every morning while my husband and I try to wake up. I had a ton of TV as a kid and so did my husband. These days, I prefer to read and he prefers to play one of the many many musical instruments he’s taught himself since he was a pre-teen. I’m pretty sure that non-stop, crappy TV is good for no one but there’s a ton of other factors that will impact a child’s ultimate development.

  • NYE

    December 9, 2011 at 7:15 am

    Tv addict
    I am def a tv addict, and unfortunetly so is my daughter. She is 2 now and was/is very much ahead of her peers vocabulary and other developments.
    My mother is my care giver and though I did not want her watching tv you eventually learn to pick your battles. Though this battle loss has not seemed to harm my child, maybe helped??
    Ps all educational tv

  • Nicomo

    June 20, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    I agree on the whole TV is just not good enough for young children and often loaded with ads that are louder than normal programming and often leave parents needing or finding themselves wanting to buy toys for their kids.
    I rather control my children’s tv viewing by subscribing to a variety of educational channels on youtube – and then streaming the content to my TV. I select and randomize the content every week/month for different times of day, seasons and cultural events and when my 3.5 year old daughter is painting or colouring she’s hearing rather than watching what’s on TV while my 7 month old girl is dancing.wiggling to the educational tunes I have selected for her. The eldest now speaks better English than 5 year old girls not bad for a child who lives in a non English speaking country and yes she is bilingual.
    So general TV on the whole is bad – I only let my daughters watch for about 30 mins in the morning and about and hour in the afternoon or evening – weekends a bit longer and varies with the weather – but when you control and select your own content – you can see positive results.


    July 30, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I was so glad to find your article. My husband and I never watch TV. When I say never, I mean we didn’t even bother getting cable when we moved to our new house and the TV isn’t even hooked up. We just don’t like it. If either of us is waiting in a doctor’s waiting room and stuck with one on, it annoys us. The commercialism, the redundancy of most of it. Now we have our first baby on the way. We don’t plan to let our child watch TV. I don’t think we could tolerate it in our home, nor watch it detract from our child’s childhood! We want her playing outside or drawing, reading, creating etc like we both did as kids. And the terrible influence on self esteem – especially for girls! No thank you! I was fascinated to read the difference between your children raised with and without TV – will show this to my husband, he’ll find it interesting too!

  • Elisabeth

    April 23, 2017 at 10:05 am

    Thank you so much for this article. My wife and I are actively trying to have children and though we know that you can never be “ready” we feel that you can educate and at least try to prepare yourself. I hold a strong belief in children not needing tv and want to focus more on self directed play. It is hard though because all the moms that we have in our lives depend on tv! They depend on tablets in the car and cartoons in order to get things done around the house or to coax their kids to sleep. I don’t want to be that kind of mom!! This article makes me feel like it is possible to have media free kids. I will be buying cabinet locks for our TV cabinet now!