Thoughts on TV

Michelle at The Monk’s Wife raised the question of television the other day – do you love it? Hate it? Something in between? Why do you watch – do you even know why? I got sucked right in to the conversation, because I have a love-hate relationship with the tube.

I love certain TV shows – and before this godawful writers’ strike brought new episodes to a screeching halt, I was immersed in the stories and the characters. Several nights a week, my TiVo box lit up, cheerily humming as it recorded the lives of these imaginary people for me. Thanks to DVR technology, I don’t usually watch when things are broadcast. (I’m one of those live-plus-three viewers that gives the ratings people such a headache.)

Gruff is a big TV-watcher, when he has time. He’s a news junkie and will watch hours and hours of all those news channels, in addition to the dramas and comedies he watches with me.

And Smooch? We have never been a zero-television family, unfortunately. When he was little, we didn’t watch anything that was really directed at him – but we did have it on while he was awake, so it was “background noise” to him, I’m sure. We own the usual roundup of baby videos – a few Baby Einsteins, a hand-me-down Elmo’s World, a freebie Mommy & Me Songtime, and a few VeggieTales. I used to use a Baby Einstein to take a shower (when he was between 6 and, oh, I’d say, 10 months old): I’d put it on in my bedroom, set up the Pack & Play, and let Smooch chill out while I got a few quiet minutes in the adjacent bathroom.  It wasn’t a daily routine, but it did let me get a stress-free break a couple of times a week.

Now that he’s older, he has actual television shows that he recognizes, watches, and asks for. I think he was about 16 months old when I discovered Nick Jr.’s The Backyardigans – 30-minute episodes with five little animated characters who sing and dance in different musical styles and genres – and I started allowing him to watch it fairly frequently. (Maybe three times a week?) At that age, he ‘tuned out’ of most of the show, but would pay attention to the music – even dancing along sometimes. It’s still his favorite show – he asks for “Kooka, Tasha?” When he wants us to turn it on – but we’ve also let him see Jack’s Big Music Show, Blue’s Clues, Little Einsteins, and Sesame Street.

This week, for example, has been a way-too-much screen time week. For some reason, when I’m sick, I just don’t possess the ability to come up with good, distracting, entertaining activities. I lie in a sniffly heap on the couch in the playroom while hours of Playhouse Disney zoom by on the TV.

Most of the time, though, I keep our mornings TV-free. I flip on the news if I wake up before he does, and then it goes off when he wakes up. Our mornings usually consist of breakfast, getting dressed and making our beds, cleaning up the kitchen (while Smooch colors), and then either playing outside or down in the playroom – or going out to playgroup two days a week. After lunch, Smooch still takes a long nap, and I tend to fritter away the time with a chore here, a blog post there… and quite often, watching whatever the TiVo recorded the night before. When he wakes up from his nap, I’ve been letting him watch one show while he sits on the potty (we’re 3 for 8, in days of pottying successfully, woo-hoo!). That stretch of the afternoon is hard for me to fill – Smooch is sometimes out of sorts when he wakes up, I’m usually worn out and ready for Gruff to be home, and flipping on the tube is the easy way out.

I recently read Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five, by Lisa Guernsey. It’s a great read, and I recommend it to anyone who’s trying to figure out how to handle the TV question in their own home.

Guernsey compiles a ton of research – like a study in Springfield, Massachusetts that seems to prove that even background noise from television has a negative impact on young kids.

“When the TV was on, there was a pronounced decrease in the length of play episodes. At each age –1, 2, and 3 years old—playtime fell significantly in the presence of the television. One-year-olds, for example, had play episodes that lasted over eighty seconds on average without the TV on. With background television, those episodes lasted less than sixty seconds. Toddlers are already famous for their short attention spans—at a minute per toy, it’s no wonder that some parents think they need to buy more and more stuff—but with the addition of background television, those spans were even shorter. The children behaved as though something was distracting them, causing them to bounce from one toy to another.”  (page 73)

She also examines whether so called “educational programs” are really of any educational value.

Sesame Street, I discovered, isn’t the only program that can boast about teaching young children. Scientific research has shown children to gain, academically and socially, from a number of shows, including Blue’s Clues, Barney, Dora the Explorer, Dragon Tales, and Mister Rogers, as well as a handful of programs that are no longer on the air. The formal features of a program – how it cuts from one scene to another, for example—have become the subject of academic study.  …And academic research has shown that, if a program is slow enough, linear enough and repetitive enough, it has a much better chance of helping preschool-aged children learn.” (page 115)

The book also explores whether children can truly learn good character values or additional languages from television shows and videos. Will screen time make our kids fat? What about so-called interactive media – games that hook up to screens for young kids.

The final chapter, “How Do Real Families Make Smart Media Choices?” looks at some of the situations that test even the best of TV-limit intentions. How do families cope with siblings of different ages and different needs from screen time? What about (ahem) sickness – the parent’s or the child’s? What about single-parent families without much support? The author acknowledges that every family makes their decisions based on a unique set of circumstances, stresses, desires, and needs. Without setting forth a set of rules that would feel restrictive or holier-than-thou, she concludes the book with suggestions that have worked for other families. I thought it was very helpful to consider instituting time limits, or using TV time as a single, discrete activity as part of a busy day. We already try to thoughtfully limit content and exposure to commercials.

One suggestion is to be careful about where screens are placed. I love the layout of our new house, because the only TV upstairs is in my bedroom, and the TV in the downstairs playroom/family room lives in an armoire with doors that can shut it away. That means that for the majority of our day, Smooch doesn’t even set eyes on a dark screen – which helps cut down on his requests for a “showz?”

This morning I had to return Into the Minds of Babes to the library. I’m sadly aware that I’m not doing a great job of managing our screen time right now – but I do plan to have a conversation or two with Gruff over the next few days about settling into some kind of better pattern. Overall, I think we do a pretty good job with our current limits. Do you have TV limits at your house? Is it based on age, or content, or frequency, or something else?

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4 Responses to Thoughts on TV

  1. Yeah, we have a love-hate relationship with the tv too.
    The tv is usually off until about 3pm, a tough time of day and the kids are starting to get tired and I am starting to run out of energy to keep them entertained.
    So they get an hour each afternoon. Not too bad, I think.
    My husband and I used to watch tv in the evenings, but since the writer’s strike has affected all the show we watch, we’ve been leaving the tv off and getting on the computer instead.
    There are some lazy weekend afternoons where I like to veg out in front of a bad chick flick 😉

  2. Heather says:

    We watch too much tv at our house I suppose. A doctor once gave me a litmus test to decide if the kids are watching way too much though: if given a choice between tv or going outside, which do they choose? My kids always choose outside, which is the choice you want them to make.

    Other than that I don’t worry about it too much. I just don’t have the energy to worry about it I guess. For my kids, they get tired of tv and choose to do something else anyway after a little while (or sometimes after no while).

  3. Elaine says:

    I admit that with two little ones in the house it can be a sort of “crutch” for my older one to watch something. He usually watches a little bit of Noggin in the morning and MAYBE a Thomas DVD in the afternoon, but not every day (no way!).

    I grew up in a house where the TV was ALWAYS on, no matter what, even while we ate dinner. You could see it from the dining table. I like our house now b/c you cannot see it from where we eat and it’s never on at the same time.

  4. fizzledink says:

    I hear that, Elaine – we often ate on TV trays in front of the set when I was growing up. It drove me CRAZY – especially since we had a perfectly good dining room table! I railed and protested enough that finally, my senior year of HS, my mom made a point to start serving dinner at the table most nights. I consider that a major victory! 🙂 And it’s one of the things I love about our layout here – no TV in sight from the living room, dining room, or kitchen. That just makes me happy. 😀

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