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Caution Needed When Allowing Kids to Watch TV

Rachel Naud
Times Colonist
April 13, 2010

I admit it. Curious George is my friend.

Thomas the Tank Engine is pretty high in my books, too, although frankly, I can't stand to watch him.
And no, just so you know, I'm not a crazed woman living in a deluded world of animated monkeys and talking trains. I'm just a busy working-from-home mom who depends, too much it seems, on these shows to keep my two-year-old son busy while I try to meet my deadlines.

But what I didn't know was that my tendency to turn on my animated babysitters could be hurting my child.
Studies have proven that television can have negative effects on children--from infants through the teenaged years. Studies also show children are watching more TV than ever.

According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, the average Canadian child watches nearly 14 hours of television each week. Moreover, by his or her high school graduation, the average teen will have spent more time watching television than in the classroom.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the centre for child health behaviour and development at the Seattle Children's hospital and author of The Elephant in the Living Room, says really young children (under a year old to age five)watch, on average, two to three hours of TV per day, while kids aged six to 18 watch approximately five hours of TV a day.

But it's not only how much they're watching--it's what they're watching that adds to the worry.
The society estimates the average child sees 12,000 violent acts on television annually, including many depictions of murder and rape. More than 1,000 studies confirm that exposure to heavy doses of television violence increases aggressive behaviour, particularly in boys.

And although as a mother of a boy these stats are definite eye-openers, I find it easy to shrug them off. After all, it's not like my maternal instincts allow for my toddler to watch inappropriate programs. Last I checked, Curious George hadn't gone ape over some mite-infested monkey girl and Thomas wasn't packing heat trying to run the other useful engines off the island of Sodor.

So surely this sort of TV watching is OK..right?


"Children watching TV before the age of three are more likely to have attention problems, language delays and cognitive deficits at school entry," says Christakis.

Yet, according to Christakis's research, in the United States today, 30 per cent of preschool children have televisions in their bedrooms, which can lead to trouble twofold. First, it allows the children to watch even more television. Second it allows them to watch television unsupervised-which is especially harmful to the toddler sect.

"Little kids that young can't distinguish between cartoons and reality," says Dr. Christakis. "And cartoons, in many ways, send the wrong message."

Violent cartoons are a big culprit when it comes to media exposure. Although many parents may think cartoons are harmless, Christakis says children who watch violent cartoons are more likely to be aggressive in real life.

"Parents' notions that cartoons are funny and unreal so therefore not bad for their children to watch are really misguided," he says. "Watching cartoons in which people are hit, punched, flattened or blown up at that age is not good for kids."

Parents are also being misguided when it comes to the so-called benefits of infant TV watching.
Infants, until 1997, remained the final frontier in TV viewing. That was, until a mother developed a line of video products that she felt were age appropriate for her infant daughter. A few years later, when her small company was purchased by Walt Disney, Baby Einstein was launched.

The demographic that has resulted from introducing infants to screens has been dramatic. In 1971, the average age at which children began to watch television was almost four years; today it is five months.
Today, infant TV viewing has become an enormous international industry. The average U. S. sales for baby DVDs is about $500 million. The rise of products directly marketed to infants has been fuelled in large part by educational claims made explicitly or implicitly that watching these videos is like brain food for baby. However, scientific research is finding the opposite to be true.

"There's absolutely no study that has demonstrated any benefit to children under the age of two watching TV," says Christakis. "In fact, the best available science to date, including research that I have done myself, suggests the very real risk of harm."

He says watching baby DVDs has been associated with delayed language and shorter attention spans, and has never been found to do anything the makers suggest, such as making children more musical, improving their vocabulary or making them mathematically inclined.

However, it's not all bad news when it comes to young kids watching TV. Studies have also shown that TV can be used as a great teaching tool.

The Canadian Pediatric Society cites the example of how watching Sesame Street can teach toddlers valuable lessons about racial harmony, co-operation, kindness, simple arithmetic and the alphabet. According to the society's position statement, "The educational value of Sesame Street has been shown to improve the reading and learning skills of its viewers."

Christakis adds shows such as Planet Earth further display how the TV medium can be used as an educational tool.

"Let's say after a child watches Planet Earth, he or she becomes excited about the snow leopard. Parents can Google 'snow leopard' with their children, or take them to the library and get them a book about snow leopards. Parents can really capitalize on the excitement TV can create."

Dr. Glen Ward, chair of the public education sub-commit-tee with the Canadian Pediatric Society, says TV can also benefit families by allowing time spent together.

"For some families, it can serve as a focal point for family time," says Ward. "If it's used as a reward instead of a right, it can be a positive thing."

Ward also says parents should watch TV with their children to interpret information and help the child develop the family's value system --not the values of the show he or she is watching.

He recommends that parents record the show and watch it with their children at a convenient time when they can all sit down together. Fast-forward through anything you don't want children exposed to.

Parents should use their common sense when it comes to their kids' TV-watching habits and realize that leaving them unsupervised to watch whatever they want can be detrimental, says Ward.

"The example I use with parents is to say that when children have uncontrolled access to TV, it's sort of like inviting a complete stranger into their world privately to discuss anything and everything with the child that they want to," says Ward. "I don't think too many parents would actually allow that to occur--especially in the child's bedroom. When I say that to parents, they kind of give their heads a shake and realize they should be putting limits on their kids' TV time."





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