Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Kids and TV: A Bad Mix

Is it any wonder American kids are overweight, have ADD, don’t read and are lagging behind most other countries in academics when one-third of our nations youngest children – babies to six-year-olds – live in homes where the television is on almost all the time? According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, one child in five under the age of two has a TV set in their bedroom. When I was a kid, I had to go to the living room to watch TV. I didn’t know I had it so hard.

I admit being more than a little bit sensitive about this now that Ally is three and is absorbing everything she sees like a sponge, including what she sees on television. Lately, she’s been more into her princess videos where she can imitate the singing and dancing. We used to let her watch Noggin network (Dora, Maisy, Miffy, etc.) but not so much anymore, now that she’s discovered life is more interesting if you’re descended from royalty. But I do observe her “zoning out” when she’s watching her videos and that kind of worries me. On the other hand, it’s encouraging to me that she loves to be read to; even if my wife and I are watching something in the evening, she’ll pull a random book from the shelf and ask us to read to her.

I’ve also been influenced by philosopher Doug Groothuis’s writings on the subject of television, especially the appendix to his book Truth Decay, reprinted on his blog here. A brief excerpt gives a good idea of where he’s coming from:

Television promotes truth decay by its incessant entertainment imperative. Amusement trumps all other values and takes captive every topic. Every subject-whether war, religion, business, law or education must be presented in a lively, amusing or stimulating manner. The best way to receive information interpersonally -through the 'talking head'- is the worst way according to television values; it simply fails to entertain (unless a comedy routine is in process). If it fails to entertain, boredom results, and the yawning watcher switches channels to something more captivating. The upshot is that any truth that cannot be transposed into entertainment is discarded by television. Moreover, even off the air, people now think that life (and even Christian ministry) must be entertaining at all costs.

I agree with just about everything he says and yet I still watch. And if I watch, how can I tell my daughter she shouldn’t? I know as an adult, I am better able to discern and filter what I see more effectively than she can. But I still can’t help feeling like a bit of a hypocrite when I tell her she can’t watch something (which, thankfully, she doesn’t ask for very often).

Quoting from the article on kids and television:

[A] generation of parents raised on TV is largely encouraging the early use of television, video games and computers by their own children, often starting in infancy.

These parents say TV teaches how to share and the ABCs when they do not have the time. Television provides time for parents to cook or take a shower. They use screen time as a reward or, paradoxically, to help kids wind down at bedtime.

What better way to learn your ABC’s or how to share than to read about it or see it acted out in real life? And, given Groothuis’s observations about TV’s hyperactive display of images, I don’t see how watching television before bed helps kids wind down.
“It’s just background noise,” said one Colorado woman who has a preschooler and who keeps the TV on most of the day.

Unfortunately, with a preschooler, there’s no such thing as “background noise”. They pick up so much that’s going on around them, even things we grown ups miss. I’m amazed at some of the minor incidents much Ally remembers from months ago, things I’d forgotten about until she brought them up again.

I’m hoping to become a better example when it comes to TV watching, and will also try to provide an alternative. I recently received the book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons in an ambitious attempt to get Ally started on the road to reading books, not that I mind reading to her. The book was recommended to us by some friends of ours, and I’ll let you know how “easy” the lessons are. I hope I don’t become one of those parents who expects his child to be picking up Joyce and Shakespeare by summer’s end. You know, the kind that have the applications to Harvard already filled out. I just want to see how it goes and I promise not to teach while the TV is on.


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