Despite the popularity of video games and more recently the advent of the iPad, TV viewing is still the main type of media that young children use. In Australia each household has an average of 2.2 TVs and children aged between 3 and 5 years watch more than 3 hours of TV/day on average. Therefore, it is little surprise that one of the most frequent questions I am asked at Parent Workshops is about TV. Parents want to know is TV viewing helpful or harmful? There is so much contradictory information about TV viewing reported in the popular media and a lot of marketing hype around TV and DVD programs marketed as ‘educational’. So let’s unpack this issue.
Like any technology, TV is neither good nor bad. Just like food, if we consume the right amounts, at the right time it can be ‘healthy’. However, if we consume too much and allow children to view TV at the wrong times, it can be detrimental to children’s learning and development.
Parents have to ask themselves the 5Ws:
WHAT is your child watching? Is it rapid-fire, fast-paced cartoons such as Sponge-Bob Square Pants? If so, this type of programming is not healthy for developing brains and should be avoided with very young children, especially before the age of 5 years, as it preconditions the mind to expect high levels of stimulation. As a result, everything else looks dull in comparison. Is the content appropriate for your child? Is the content educational and interactive? Research has consistently shown us that programs such as Sesame Street and Playschool improve young children’s learning outcomes. Is your child too young to understand? We know that children do not understand narratives until around the age of 18 months, so TV viewing prior to this should not be based on ‘stories’.*
WHERE is your child watching TV? Is the TV on in the background while children are playing? If so, turn it off. Today’s children can consume almost 4 hours of background TV a day! Even though children don’t appear to be distracted, the research tells us that their play is often compromised because of background TV. Poor academic performance and language delays have also been linked to background TV. We also know that TVs should be kept out of children’s bedrooms. Parents cannot monitor what children are watching when TVs are in bedrooms.
WHEN is your child watching TV? Recent research has shown that TV viewing (in fact any screen media like video games and computers) 90 minutes before bed causes sleep delays in children. These sleep delays can accumulate over time and cause deprivation in children (and us adults too). Sleep is vital for brain development. Also, where possible avoid fast-paced TV shows before school. Brains get excited by the rapid-fire action on-screen and then school is a lot less appealing in comparison and children ‘tune out’.
WITH WHOM is your child watching TV? Overwhelmingly, the research evidence tells us that co-viewing (not just TV, any media such as video games or computers) improves children’s understanding of the media and also improves their language skills. Siblings or friends can sit and watch TV with a child and this encourages them to interact and ask questions. Parents are often busy and use TV to get things done (I know I have had to do that) but the simple act of talking to the child during or after the TV show is critical. It forces your child to think about what they were viewing and connect what they saw to other experiences. In this sense, children are actually learning from TV.
WHY is your child watching TV? When children use any technology there is an ‘opportunity cost’- your child could be doing something else with their time. This is one of the reasons that TV viewing is discouraged for babies- there is a significant ‘displacement effect’ for babies that have very limited amounts of awake time. Has TV viewing become a habit? Is it used as a reward? We have to ask ourselves why we are our children using TV. I know this often stirs up emotions in parents.
Parents should not feel guilty if they are making intentional and deliberate choices about their child watching TV. TV viewing will not be detrimental to your child if you are making purposeful decisions and interact with children during and after TV use. TV viewing can be beneficial to young children, if we make the right decisions about its use. Like anything, too much and used in the wrong ways, it can be harmful. We need to teach today’s digital natives about how they can manage media and not let media manage them, as it will be an integral part of their lives.
*Current Australian government and American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations are for no screen-time for children under two years of age. In reality, it is acknowledged that these recommendations are difficult to adhere to and many parents exceed these recommendations. Instead, parents need to focus on what their child is watching on TV and if they are engaging with another adult, rather than focusing primarily on how much they are watching TV.