Last week, a new study reported that the TV time for preschool children maybe as high as one-third of their waking hours. The sudden spurt is not caused by some epidemic surge in watching TV, but because previous studies did not account for the time spent at daycare. According to the study, at-home daycare centers were particularly egregious in this matter, with almost three-quarters reporting they let the kids they cared for watch TV and DVDs while the number was only one-third for the non-at-home daycare centers. More alarming was the amount of time spent watching TV. On average, preschoolers spent 2.4 hours, toddlers 1.6 hours and infants 12 minutes at a home-based day care while the respective numbers for daycare centers were 24 minutes and 6 minutes; non-home daycare centers said they did not allow infants in front of the TV.
According to an article in the British daily, The Guardian, four month old infants in the US gaze at the idiot box for an average of 44 minutes a day. The number shoots up to 1.2 hours for those just under two. Similar data for Australia and the UK also point to significant amounts of time spent viewing TV by young children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero TV and video time for children under 2 and suggests a maximum of 1-2 hours a day for older kids. The Australian Academy of Pediatrics is considering doing the same.
Is this Ludditism or is this news of increased TV time alarming in some way ? Does data back up AAP’s recommendations ? After all, AAP also opposes co-sleeping, the custom of having the infants share the bed with the parents. The answers to these questions are based on several considerations.
The primary concern of most parents with their kids watching TV or DVD is the nature of harm, specifically the effects on cognitive and social skills. Aren’t Baby Einsteins popular ? Aren’t they credited with making kids smarter, increasing some cognitive skill such as language acquisition or spatial reasoning ? The ineffectiveness of these so-called educational DVDs is well documented. They’re so ineffective, Disney, the makers of Baby Einstein, started offering refunds because their products failed to live up to the marketing. Dr. Dimitis Christakis, a paediatrician and researcher at the Seattle Children’s Hospital is oft-quoted for his work on the effect of media on kids. Dr. Christakis became interested in the subject when as a father, he found his toddler son mesmerized by the TV.
His research links too much TV during the preschool years with poorer language acquisition, obesity, violent behavior and reduced attention spans. One study surveyed 1000 families with children under 2 in Minnesota and Washington. Their conclusion, published in 2007: “for every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants understood an average of six to eight fewer words than infants who did not watch them. Baby DVDs and videos had no positive or negative effect on the vocabularies on toddlers 17 to 24 months of age.” Another study, based on data accumulated over 40 years across 8000 families linked boys between 2-5 years of age who viewed violent programs (cartoons, movies, even football) with a higher probability of aggressive and anti-social behavior later in their life (specifically 7-10 years); examples of such behavior include cheating, being mean, lacking remorse, being destructive, being disobedient at school and having trouble with teachers. An earlier study by his group, in 2004, linked excessive TV watching with attention problems at age 7. An independent study by a group of New Zealand scientists on the same subject concluded: “childhood television viewing may contribute to the development of attention problems and suggest that the effects may be long-lasting.”. Events unfold at a faster pace in TV and videos than they do in real life which sets them up to them expect events in real life to unfold at the same pace. Ergo the lowered attention span.
A little over half of households with kids under the age of six report TV being always on, mostly on or at least on half the time in their house. Studies from Univ of Massachussetts Child Study Center said background TV “may have negative consequences for speech development, playtime and parent-child interaction”. Another set of data and studies is quoted in the book: “Thinking and Literacy” which looks at data from various educational departments such as the 1980 California Assessment Program and the National Assessment of Educational Progress to conclude that TV viewing leads to reduced academic performance.
Some researchers speak of a media diet to account for quality as well as quantity. For example, programs such as Sesame Street were created with children in mind and by consulting with child development experts. Some studies done on children who viewed such programs show that the children developed a general understanding of the world faster. But none of these studies included infants, only much older kids. Also, how much faster ? Does faster imply better ? Does this faster development continue in later life or do the other kids catch up ? Another criticism of these media studies is that higher socio-economic status and greater educational qualification of parents far outweigh the effects of TV when it comes to measuring the cognitive development of children. That is no criticism. It reminds me of how unfair the advantage is to poorer children, in surmounting their disadvantages in competing with their more well-to-do peers.
Another facet on the effect of media on young children is the contribution to the consumerization of childhood, a subject about which I’ve written in the past. The majority of advertisements to children involve food and toys. The advertisements for food all involve unhealthy food such as sugary drinks (like Coke), sweets (candies, sweetened cereals etc.) and fat (potato chips, nachos etc.). Like the perfunctory warning sign posted on the outside of cigarette packs and tobacco stores, some advertisements exhort children to eat vegetables and fruits, to eat healthy, by the way. But the combination of advertisements, school vending machines and peer behavior make it almost impossible for kids to stay off these unhealthy food. To top that, young children’s brains crave sweet, salt and fat; even their own biology makes it hard for them to avoid sweets. Other advertisements start promoting fashion at an early age. The US market for infant, toddler and preschool kids clothing is about $15 billion dollars according to a report published in 2003. Specifically girls begin to develop an skewed, abnormal sense of their bodies. A growing body of work documents the commercialization of childhood and its effects, a body that includes books such as Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy, Pamela Paul’s Parenting Inc., Sharon Beder’s This Little Kiddy Went to Market, online essays such as “Commodifying Kids” and online websites such as “Campaign For a Commercial Free Childhood” and movies such as “Consuming Kids”. A good summary of the effects is narrated by Henry A Giroux in “Commodifying Kids”:
“American society in the last thirty years has undergone a sea change in the daily lives of children – one marked by a major transition from a culture of innocence and social protection, however imperfect, to a culture of commodification. This is culture that does more than undermine the ideals of a secure and happy childhood; it also exhibits the bad faith of a society in which, for children, “there can be only one kind of value, market value; one kind of success, profit; one kind of existence, commodities; and one kind of social relationship, markets.”(2) Children now inhabit a cultural landscape in which they can only recognize themselves in terms preferred by the market.”
Another facet of the effect of TV on children are the consequences to parent-child interaction. TV is increasingly taking the place of active involvement of caregivers with their children. As Americans work longer and longer (a trend that seems to be also afflicting other parts of the world, especially India), they find themselves coming home tired and in need of a break. A TV provides a convenient cop out. Marketeers effectively use this knowledge to sell more products such as educational DVDs and programs to parents using techniques such as selective quoting of scientific publications, funding of studies to show results in favor of their products and anecdotal evidence. Parents rationalize the choice of seating their infants and toddlers in front of TV watching these so called educational programs. We’re all creatures of habit. Once we get into a habit of watching TV together as the way to spend time together, we have difficulty breaking this habit, especially since the habit is so easy to sustain. They take the place of conversations and other means of social interaction and enquiry. TV quickly subsumed all other forms of interaction when introduced in places like Bhutan, where TV was originally banned.
TV is the elephant in the living room. In a recent article about the deleterious effects of TV on children in the British daily, The Guardian, a telling paragraph discusses the size and nature of this elephant :
“Aric Sigman, a UK psychologist and author of The Spoilt Generation, a broadside against permissive parenting, says while governments are happy to offer advice on suncream and portions of fruit and vegetables, they are less willing to provide guidelines about TV. “Of course they don’t want to because it is a vote-loser,” he says. “It is society’s favourite pastime and it makes parents feel guilty. The convenience of us parents is seen as paramount as opposed to the wellbeing of our children. When it comes to our childrens’ wellbeing, our guilt as parents has to come second.”
Aw, you say, I grew up on a steady diet of love and TV. Did I turn out so badly ? TV for children today is a vastly different phenomenon than when I was growing up. Disney’s Mickey and Donald or Tom and Jerry were harmless, moral-empty romps in the park, the kind children usually indulge in. No pat messages about trusting your instinct, obeying your parents, loving your nation and such. Even the Lion King is hardly like the cartoons of the older days. Aric Sigman continues his missive in the Guardian article:
“Part of the problem, argues Sigman, is we have a nostalgic view of our own experience of television when we were young. “We say, ‘I watched Blue Peter and I’m OK’,” says Sigman. “But the editing speeds and the colours and the number of hours spent watching TV and the age at which TV watching starts are a whole different thing now. We can’t compare now with before.”
The debate is not completely over and more data points are always welcome. For Shanthala and I, however, this is enough evidence to throw TV out of our house. To own a TV or not was the first argument of our married life. She was against and I was for. For a while, we owned a TV exclusively for movies. But when Maya was due, we got rid of it. So far, neither one of us regrets the decision.
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