I’m not here to advocate that you stop your children watching TV.
But I do advocate that you make an informed decision about how much TV your children watch. Read what the AAP has to say. Read accounts from people on both sides (and preferably those who can still see the middle). Experiment on your children. Then make a decision to allow no TV, limited TV, or unlimited TV. Whatever your choice, if you’re making it from the place of knowledge, you can be assured it’s the right one for you and your family.
This is our story about our choice.
When Big Brother was born, my husband and I didn’t research the effects of television on children. We didn’t know we were supposed to. We just did what we thought was right (and what we thought would work) and hoped for the best.
By the time Big Brother was a year old, he was watching TV all day. Actually, I lie. He wasn’t watching TV all day, the TV was turned on all day. He’d come and go as he chose. But it didn’t take long before his ‘sitting in front of the TV’ time outweighed his ‘playing on the other side of the room’ time.
I was a working Mum and my husband was a Stay at Home Dad. On my days off, I’d take Big Brother to the park, or we’d do some colouring or some craft. But as soon as that was done, the TV was back on. I can’t say I was completely comfortable with the situation, but I wasn’t the primary carer and the situation was as it was.
When Big Brother turned two, my husband and I traded places. I worked from home and my husband went to work full-time. But nothing changed on the TV front. I had work to do and it was easier to let Big Brother watch TV than hear him complain about it. Besides, TV kept him occupied and happy.
That’s when I discovered that the “experts” had very specific advice about children and television.
I’m not going to lie. I spent a lot of time arguing against the AAP’s recommendations in my own head.
“But he also plays outside and colours and makes stuff. And he’s so polite and well-behaved. And he’s so clever and he loves jigsaw puzzles and books and stories. So how can TV be harmful? Besides, the shows are educational!
“And if given a choice he’d rather go to the park, or do some craft, or play a board game than watch TV. So it’s not like he’s addicted to it or he can’t survive without it.”
Then I continued to do what I thought was best (and easiest), despite the concerns hovering around the back of my mind.
But it didn’t take long for those concerns to intensify. I stopped turning the TV on in the morning and made the rule that the TV had to be turned off every time Big Brother wasn’t actively watching it. He still watched a lot of TV, but at least he wasn’t distracted and dragged back to the screen every time a new theme song played. I’d guess he was watching up to eight hours of TV a day. (And it KILLS me to admit that.)
Big Brother was just short of four years old when I had a sudden, guilt-inducing moment of clarity.
If given a choice he’d rather go to the park, or do some craft, or play a game than watch TV.
But he wasn’t being given a choice. Not really. We’d made the choice for him when we’d let him watch TV before he was even old enough to talk. And, because he was a child, he got hooked. Because he was a child, he couldn’t imagine a life without TV. Because he was a child, it was our responsibility to know what was best for him. Not his.
Besides, my husband can’t sit in a room with the TV on and pay attention to anything else. Why would a four-year-old be any different?
So I cut down on TV. Half an hour in the morning, an hour over lunch, and half an hour in the afternoon. Two hours a day. But half an hour easily stretches to forty-five minutes. And the TV is such a useful distraction when you’ve got a newborn who needs LOTS of attention and you just can’t spend hours a day entertaining a four-year-old.
But he was down to watching an average of 3-4 hours a day. It was a huge improvement. But did it make any difference to his behaviour? No, not really.
The added complication was that we’d enrolled Big Brother into a Steiner Waldorf school — an education system that, amongst other things, specifically discourages young children watching TV. So my husband and I talked about cutting out TV altogether. Well, I say talked. What I mean is that we argued passionately every day for months on end. We were both apprehensive about the change, but my husband was also concerned that by limiting Big Brother’s experience with “normal life”, it would make it difficult for him to relate to other children.
Eventually we came to an agreement. We would trial having no TV for two weeks and see if it made a difference. If not, we’d go back to letting Big Brother watch TV in small doses.
By 9:00am, I was ready to give the whole thing up as a bad joke. Big Brother had already asked me if he could watch TV at least seven hundred and forty times. He’d sulked, whined, cried, and thrown himself on the couch in a fit of frustration and boredom. But I held my ground. By the time bedtime rolled around, I was exhausted. And then something amazing happened.
“Come on Big Brother, time to brush your teeth,” I said. I anticipated the usual argument. Every night, he reacted as though teeth-brushing was only one step removed from water-boarding.
“Okay,” Big Brother said.
And that was that. We brushed his teeth, had a story, and he went to bed. In a good mood. Even though he was tired. It was the easiest bedtime in four years. (And I hadn’t even realised it had been difficult before!)
Big Brother asked if he could watch TV about fifty times, but it took less to distract him. He was more willing to play by himself. But I discovered something worrying: he didn’t really know how. All he knew how to do was re-enact a mish-mash of things he’d seen on TV.
“Oh no! Roary ran out of petrol!” Pause. “Mummy, what happens now?”
“I don’t know. What do you think happens?” I asked.
“No,” said Big Brother. “What happens next in the story?”
“Let’s see… Maybe this green car could help him?”
“No.” He was frustrated now. “What happened next on Roary the Race Car?”
It took me a while to get it. All those stories and games we’d thought he was making up? He wasn’t. Not really. He was retelling stories he’d seen on TV, mashing them together or using different “creatures”, but still telling the same stories. And when he forgot how the story went (which happened remarkably quickly), he had no idea what to do next.
No wonder he needed help entertaining himself.
He ate all his dinner without being prompted. Bedtime was easy.
Big Brother only asked about watching TV a dozen times. He drew pictures of animals rather than cartoon characters. He asked if he could please, please, please help do the washing and sweep the floors.
Days Four to Seven
Big Brother stopped asking about the TV and started helping with the housework. He ate his meals without needing to be prompted and listened to what I said with a level of focus I’d never before seen. He didn’t complain about brushing his teeth. And he slept better (and for longer) than he used to. I’d thought he was well-behaved before, but the difference in his behaviour after only a week without TV was amazing.
My husband and I didn’t even have to talk about whether the “trial” was successful.
Big Brother made up and used his toys to enact a story that was his, rather than being inspired by something he’d seen on TV. He didn’t need my help. He didn’t need me to entertain him. All he needed was his imagination and half a dozen toys. Watching him was bliss.
It’s been ten months since Big Brother stopped watching TV. We have Family Movie Night on Saturday nights, but that’s the only time the television is even turned on.
Big Brother isn’t perfect. But he’s so much more creative and expressive and empathic and helpful and… I don’t know… present than when he was allowed to watch TV. He listens. He focuses on what’s happening around him. He takes responsibility for himself and for his role in the family. He comes up with amazing stories and games, he thinks so far outside the square he can’t even see it anymore, and he can entertain himself for hours on end without the need for parental interaction, electronic devices or even necessarily toys. (Seriously, he can spend hours telling intricately woven stories of honour and love and betrayal using only two sticks and a couple of leaves.)
As I said at the beginning of this (incredibly long) post: I’m not here to advocate that you stop your children watching TV. Not at all. Your family is different to mine. Your needs are different. Your children are different. And in all honesty, perhaps we wouldn’t have seen such a large change if Big Brother hadn’t spent the first few years of his life watching unlimited TV. It’s impossible to know.
But if you sometimes feel that your preschooler isn’t really listening to you, or you worry whether she really knows how to play by herself, or you’re in the least bit curious whether watching TV really makes a difference… Give it a try.
Cut out TV and computers for one week. Not the week when you’re on holidays or you’re out of routine for some other reason. Just an average, ordinary week where any change (positive or negative) will be obvious.
Give it seven days with no screen time and see what happens. You can always go back to normal afterwards. And what have you got to lose?
What rules do you have in your household for children watching TV? Have you ever done a no-television trial?