Articles and Topics
Television Turmoil
Children not infrequently ask a grandparent, “Which TV programs did you watch when you were a kid?” If you want to see a look of incredulity on a child’s face, just respond to that question with “When I was a child, we didn’t have TV.” “Impossible,” the look says in response. Today’s children literally cannot imagine life without television any more than they can imagine life without cars and planes, running water and microwave ovens. Recently I moved to a different house, and the movers were far more concerned about hooking up my TV set than they were about the washer and dryer!

There is no question that TV provides unparalleled educational opportunities and that it links together all the people on the globe with news and significant events. Because of TV, the tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina impacted all of us far more than would have been the case without it. Even so, the pervasiveness of TV has not been without its problems. From disputes between marital partners about which channel gets watched to frequent hassles between parents and children over which programs and how much TV can be watched, the “box” is a source of continuing family conflict.

Recently I received an e-mail from a mother who was distraught over the fact that her 18-month-old daughter insisted on having the TV on constantly, even when she was reading to the little girl. That, we would have to agree, is a real addiction.

How much do children really watch?
If asked about our viewing habits, most of us greatly underreport, and possibly under-perceive, just how much TV we actually watch. “Oh, I hardly ever turn the set on,” claims one mother who actually watches 20 hours a week. This underreporting is not surprising, as “not watching TV” is a sort of status symbol. You are somehow considered more intellectual if you get your news from the daily paper and news magazines than if you settle for “sound bite” television reporting, and if you read books rather than watch dramas enacted on the small screen.

But how much we adults watch is less critical than how much our children watch and, of equal or greater importance, what they watch. Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a survey on TV watching in children and found that the average child in America watched TV approximately three hours per day and that, when you added videos and games, that figure doubled. One striking finding from recent research is that about one-third of children between the ages of 2 and 7 and two-thirds of those between 8 and 18 have TV sets in their rooms. Parental control of those sets in the wee hours of the morning cannot possibly be easy.

But quite apart from a specific concern about what too much TV can do to children is what it keeps them from doing. A child sitting in front of the TV is not playing with toys, interacting with parents or other children or engaging in vigorous play. In fact, many people consider excessive TV watching to be a factor in what has been called the obesity epidemic in America.

One of the more surprising of the recommendations made by the Academy of Pediatrics is that children younger than 2 not be allowed to watch any TV at all, regardless of program content. Very young children have trouble distinguishing between real events and those depicted on TV. Adults know that bees do not really speak our language when communicating with flowers, but very young children have no way of knowing that. Even the news cannot be exempt from monitoring. Who knows what it does to a very young child’s sense of security to see pictures of water rushing over levees or emaciated children being crawled over by hungry flies.

But, of course, the content that most worries us is the violence that seems to be ever-present in TV programs. And, as it is both a written and unwritten rule that the good guys and gals have to win, they are often as aggressive as their opponents. Research done by Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura many years ago, often replicated and confirmed, showed that children who observe an adult acting aggressively are more likely to act aggressively themselves. It is interesting that, on many “family” channels, previews of future programs often feature violent and sexually explicit acts. And how can parents control and prevent that?

What can parents do?
I have a few suggestions that will help keep conflicts from arising and will help settle them if they do:

1) Established rules should be followed, with exceptions few and far between.
Parents should decide on and set rules about TV viewing and stick to them with consistency and firmness. An indisputable rule should be that homework comes first, no matter what time a favorite program might air. And, for evening TV, I advocate getting ready for bed (bath, teeth brushed, backpack organized for the next day) before any watching begins. A permissible exception might be, for an older child, a school assignment to watch and be prepared to discuss a particular program. In such instances, it seems only fair that the child should have channel priority in the family.

2) Use TV programs as a basis for family discussions.
Watch programs with your children. After the program is over and the set turned off, ask them what they thought about the drama or action. If you discuss what happened on the program with your children, you have a chance to correct any misinterpretations they might have made. Ask whether they think such things could happen in your family and what you should do if they did.

3) Don’t use TV as reinforcement after your children are in elementary school.
I specify after the preschool years, as it seems more appropriate to use TV as reinforcement during the preschool years. That is, I see nothing wrong with bargains such as “Finish your lunch and you can watch TV for half an hour before your nap.” However, by the elementary years I would avoid that, as it makes TV seem too special.

4) Be as concerned about content as about quantity.
Although most of what I have written so far deals with the quantity of television your children watch, perhaps the content of what they watch is even more important. Parents and children are fortunate that, some 40 years ago at the dawn of the television age, some wise people within the industry sought guidance from child development personnel and began to design and produce programs that would help children acquire cognitive and social skills. That work, resulting in such programs as “Sesame Street,” “Captain Kangaroo” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” literally transformed television programming for preschoolers. Whether we have ever achieved that level of transformation for slightly older children is questionable. The problem appears to be that they quickly become attracted to the “cool” content of programs designed for adolescents and adults. Make certain that you watch favorite programs with your older children so you can determine whether the values expressed in the programs are consistent with those of your family.

Lest I sound too negative, I hasten to comment that there is a lot of good content on TV. But we have to look for it—and look at it.

5) You control the remote.
Earlier I mentioned the e-mail I received from a parent lamenting the fact that her toddler wanted the TV on constantly. I worried that she would consider my response flippant, though I meant it in all seriousness. It was: You control the remote. Don’t ever forget that and turn that privilege over to your children. You not only control the “Off-On” button but channel selection. Make clear to your children that TV watching, like every other activity in your household, cycles through Mission Control—namely you. Perhaps this is the most important recommendation of all, and the one most likely to minimize television turmoil in your family.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education