Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Television and kids

We will return to our regularly scheduled Q&As with various folks involved in gifted education soon. But in the meantime, a slight diversion: Television.

I have a column in today's USA TODAY about "The Great TV Disaster."

The news hook is the (originally scheduled) Feb 17, 2009 transition to digital TV signals. The transition could have, in theory, left some analog-only households in the dark. Our government has spent a lot of time and effort making sure no one suffers that great tragedy, but my point was that there is no policy interest in making sure people can watch TV. If anything, there's a major public interest in getting people to watch less. A major NIH report in December found that 30 years of research shows that, when it comes to kids, TV time is highly correlated with obesity, smoking, poor school outcomes, etc. These ills can cost society trillions over time.

Though fewer people study this, TV isn't good for adults either. It creates a time deficit for everything else. We watch 4.5 hours per day, on average, which means we don't exercise, work as much as we could, play with our kids as much as we could, etc. We do still sleep 8 hours, but we think we're getting less, possibly because other studies have found that a lot of evening screen time makes you feel less rested.

Anyway -- there are a lot of problems with TV time. Of course, there's also a lot of cool stuff on TV, too. We are in a big Elmo phase right now in my household. My 21-month-old son (yes, I know, under the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended age for viewing TV) is way into the furry red monster. I believe it started in earnest when he got his first hair cut a month ago. (That's the photo accompanying this post). The lady who cut his hair had him sit on a fire truck and watch an Elmo video. Next thing you know, he's saying "Elmo! Elmo!" and pointing at our TV very insistently. So we have the DVDs.

In theory, Elmo is educational. The reality is that children young enough to be in Elmo's target market don't pick up too much on the educational component. They just know that the character is appealing and, after a short while, familiar. Familiar things are cool in a scary world. So what do we do? We do our best to limit the screen time and make sure Jasper plays outside and with friends a lot too.

I'm curious what other people do. Is TV allowed in your house? What are the rules on show choice and timing? Are there shows that really are educational and smart enough to justify the time they take -- particularly for gifted kids?


Catherine said...

Not only did we decide before my son was born that TV was not going to be a part of his daily life, but I contend that our "no TV" stance is one of many reasons why he's the way he is...very advanced for his age.

Because we never introduced him to TV, we've easily been able to live without it. We read together, do puzzles, go to the park, play board games, etc. All things that would take a back seat if we carved out time to watch a DVD.

I LOVE TV and the invention of DVR is second only to penicillin in my book, but not for my kid. I'm not holier than though about it, we just make it a point not to have it on in our home while he's awake.

TV isn't evil, I just think there's no benefit to it for kids. There is nothing that TV can teach him that I can't and as a family with 2 working-outside-the-home parents, our time with our son is too precious in the evenings and on weekends to give some of that time up to TV.

Kevin said...

My wife and I have never had a TV set, and so we have never had to deal with child TV addiction. We do have a computer, and we limit screen time (other than homework) to an hour a day. That time gets spent on various computer games (mostly of the nonviolent problem solving and world-building types) and on programming.

Occasionally, as a family, we watch a DVD on our computer, generally either a classic film or a Mythbusters episode.

TV isn't evil, but most of what our society uses it for (to enforce conformity and increase consumerism) is.

Anonymous said...

Since I made the connection between TV viewing and behavior issues, there's nearly no TV time for my children. As a side benefit, they're more focused and creative. Also, they seem satisfied with what they have instead of pestering me for the latest toy.

There is a chapter about television in Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think by Jane Healy, PhD. I'm also planning to read Living Without the Screen: Causes and Consequences of Life without Television by Marina Krcmar.

Hopefully there will be more research into how TV impacts learning.

The Princess Mom said...

We've never limited screen time of either the TV or computer variety.

My boys loved watching videos and Blues Clues before they learned to read. We also read aloud, played blocks and puzzles and ran around outside. I tried to limit video game playing to age 7+, but that didn't work out so well.

But no harm, no foul. Now they watch TV, play video games, read, play board games, exercise regularly, hang out with friends both online and IRL, etc. They're also very tech savvy, studying programming and have spent many summers at technology camp.

Video offers a great many benefits for young gifted kids. Just think of all the wonderful things they can learn about in depth on the History and Discover Channels that are otherwise off-limits to non- or beginning readers. This is why gifted preschoolers tend to watch more television than other kids--they have that rage for knowledge that can't be quenched otherwise.

My kids learned reading, science, math and logic from computer games, starting as soon as they could work the mouse (just before 2). They learn technological ("21st Century") skills, as well. And my oldest is considering programming/game design as a career. Had I limited their screen time when they were younger, he wouldn't have had nearly as many hours of deliberate practice in game design.

Christine. said...

My youngest brother was not allowed to watch TV when he was in high school because his grades were not great. Guess what he did when he went to college? Sitting in front of the TV most of the time and consequently dropped out.

Because of that, I believe in moderation. I do let my kid watch a PBS show that I recorded for half an hour or an hour and he does watch TV every other day.

Anonymous said...

I have a love/hate realationship with TV, but my husband is hooked. If he is home, the TV is on. I fought to keep it out of the bedroom, and won, so at least it doesn't creep in there.

My almost three year old doesn't have limits on TV, but seems to self limit. He can only sit still so long before he gets up and does something else. He also limits what he watches on his own. He'll sit for a few minutes for Ssponge Bob (I know, I'm going to hell for that one)but it just doesn't hold his interest. On the other hand, he insisted on The Letter Factory starting at 16 months and would watch the whole thing through. He's now entered a dinosaur obsession, and loves dinosaur movies. Does he like the nice, safe, catroon ones? No. He insists on watching Walking with Dinosaurs and another DVD on fossils.

I still think we would be better off without the TV, but I will say that he's learned a great deal from the educational DVD's that he watches. He sure didn't learn about Coelophysis and Diplodicus from me.

He is also very tech savy and uses computers, Nintendo DS, and the iTouch suprisingly well for his age.

I just try to balnce the screen time with lots of activty and one on one pretend play time.

C T said...

We don't have a TV, but we have our family computer on a small entertainment center so the screen is about the level at which a TV would be. We play DVDs on the computer for them and encourage them (ages 4 and almost 2) to play games on the and websites. I'm almost always near them (sometimes sharing the screen to read blogs and news :) ) when they watch a program.
One of my main viewing goals for them is that they not be pounded over the head with aggressive advertising aimed at them. By using a computer instead of a TV, this goal is basically met, but my children also get to enjoy fun movies and shows that stimulate their creative play later.

Jeremy said...

Our kids (7, 5 and 1) get no more than 2-3 hours of screen time per week, and often less than that. They usually choose the computer now instead of DVDs on TV (we don't have cable) -- we use it as a treat and reward (and an occasional break for us) and monitor what they watch.

I found Bowling Alone fascinating and influential a few years ago. Exhaustively researched, it traces a variety of social trends and ends up finding that TV is a huge culprit in the decline of what the author calls "social capital" in society. It's not that he sets out to vilify TV; he just sorts through the data and finds that it's one of the only factors that seems to show a causal relationship, rather than just a correlation.

But really, for us it just comes back to the fact that the world -- and real people in that world -- are much more interesting and engaging than anything you'll ever find on TV. Of all the things to spend your time on, it has to be the least creative. The only downside I've found is that I'm clueless in casual conversation at work or parties when the latest TV show comes up, but the conversation usually returns to something more interesting before too long.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Catherine, gee thanks. You took the words out of my mouth and now I have nothing left to say :(.

Seriously, I commend you, Catherine. I could write a book on this subject. Goodness knows, I've given hundreds of lectures on it. To my friends, that is! No, I don't preach. I just have cultivated ready answers over the years to, "how come you all don't watch television?"

I'll share soon. But the mile long to-do list beckons from every corner.

Right now, my blogs, yahoogroups and Facebook are enough of a time sink. We no longer have a television, it died, and I was happy to bury it. We've been televion free for three years. Previously it was all but off limits to my child. We never made an issue of it. I'll tell you next how we pulled that off without cajoling, bribes, nags.

Ha! My daughter grew up in the shadow of friends rewarding their kids with...television! It is such a dominant issue in most households.

I cringe every time I hear a behaviorist advocate television as a reward for anything, homework chief among the list of dreaded tasks. The "experts" call it screen time and you entice your child to do homework by promising television when they've complied. Thus, in my opinion, sending the message that learning is yucky, a bitter pill to swallow, and that television is really the important fun stuff.

Who needs it? I contend my daughter is this consummate ravenous voluminous reader because of no television. Laura, you say most folks watch 4.5 hours of tv a day. I shudder. Just where do the kids find the time? My daughter has far more homework than that each night and I've already been worried sick for years at all the sleep deprivation. Where on earth would she even find the time to watch all that crap?

Pablo A. Perez-Fernandez said...

I think this TV debate in the USA is a little moronic. It is obvious that too much time in front of the TV is bad for anybody. One does less exercise, reading, and socialization. This is plain and obvious. However, it would be a mistake, in my opinion, to completely deprive a child from TV. The medium has become a source of popular culture. I am not arguing for or against its inherent worth, but there are negative consequences from not being aware of it.

There are a number of legitimate reasons to let your kid watch a little TV. Here is one example. I was born in Spain but live in Los Angeles. I speak in Spanish to my daughter, and she understands 95% of all the words I say to her. Unfortunately, she does not get to hear anybody else talking to her in Spanish. So, when she wants to watch one more cartoon, I tell she can only do it if she watches one in Spanish. The funny thing is that she almost always agrees, and her Spanish comprehension has improved markedly as a result.

This bring up the question of what to let your kids watch and how much time to allow them in front of the TV. These are important questions, but the answers are different for every family. There is no right answer that works uniformly for the whole population.

pelsteen said...

I stopped watching TV when I went away to college. I have averaged less than an hour per year since. Thus I was not about to have a TV for children to watch. Instead, I read them lots of books until they were hooked on books. Then, in 4th grade they had to use the computer for "creative writing" every week and we have since had to limit computer time.

My kids are now aged 11 and 13 and active in skating, gymnastics, skiing, dodgeball, soccer, and just plain outdoor play, but use the computer for homework or games an hour or two per day. They spend at least two hours per day reading.

My advice to parents of young children to just abstain from TV and computers and use books until your children are hooked on books and reading well.

LK said...

I don't limit time on anything. I have not had to. My kids limit themselves. I have found that if I don't turn the TV on they don't either. Sometimes they watch the Disney Channel in the AM. Pretty innocuous stuff. It would never occur to them to put on the set after school. I have never put it on. They have no idea what is on. My husband and I watch the news in the evening and then we watch some TV at night. They don't like the grownup shows. They do something else.

I think that the act of limiting TV would give it more value. Why turn it into forbidden fruit. Instead just model good habits. If you don't turn it on for yourself, they wont turn it on either.

I think that sometimes we over think things. Should we only watch educational shows? Should we limit to a specific number of hours a week or a day? No. I don't think so. Just encourage good healthy behavior. Engage in that behavior yourself, and then let your kids make the right choices. Not everything needs to be decided based on the latest study or statistics.

Anonymous said...

Not having a television for the first 10 years of our child's life is the single best parenting decision we've made. The result has been a calmer family with more focus on reading and games and less on passive entertainment.

Anonymous said...

We've gone through various phases with TV, and finally, it's in the basement and we have no plans on having it converted to digital.

For awhile, we compromised with using a black-and-white car tv in our home so kids could watch the designated one hour of TV. (My husband is adamantly against TV--frankly, because he gets addicted to it!) I like to watch news. It was easy to control because all I had to do was pick it up and hide it. Then, once it broke, I tried to replace it but because of the upcoming digital conversion, they no longer made them. I bought a small, color TV in fall and it was a disaster. Kids wanted to watch it constantly, I had a fight on my hands every day to keep to one hour, so finally, I put it downstairs where it'll stay. Maybe it'll be kitchy one day and will displayed next to our old-fashioned typewriter.

Do kids miss it? No. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Kristina L said...

I too am passionate advocate of TV-free life. Although when I tell people we don't have TV, they get confused. We have a TV-set, connected to a DVD player, but we have not watched broadcast tv since 1993. I know if it was available, our kids would get into the habit of turning it on every day. Right now, we have an arrangement that works well for our family - they get a movie night once or twice a week, which they enjoy.

I have to admit, I have to re-examine my stance, since with Netflix and now the Roku box, we have access to many TV programs on an on-demand basis. Maybe I need to change my slogan from "TV-free since '93" to "commercial-free since '93."

dgm said...

We're not completely TV-free: our kids (10 1/2 and 6) get to watch Saturday morning cartoons. However, neither my husband or I are "TV people"--we don't have shows we are addicted to or regularly watch. If I am curious about some show, I will rent it on Netflix, watch a few episodes during our Friday night "movie night," and be done with it.

I think that because both kids grew up with so little TV, they don't think much about it or beg to watch it. They are really good at self-amusement.

I will say that I've noticed one drawback. Now that my 6 yr. old started playing basketball, he's had a harder time learning the game because he has never watched sports on TV :-)

Anonymous said...

We have allowed our children to watch TV without commercials. I can't say enough about TIVO. The freedom to record shows we choose and watch it on our schedule commercial free is wonderful.

Samantha said...

There's not always a lot of time available to watch television but, when there is, we only limit based on age-appropriate content.

Those I know from "no TV" households cannot function when a TV is on: They get mesmerized by it.

Those I know from "TV on all the time" households can focus on the programming when they want, but can also do other things and tune it out of their heads.

I know that's not a scientific survey, but it's what I've seen.

Anyway ... If you have other interesting activities in your life, the whole TV issue goes away.

Evan Adams said...

Gifted adult here: I'm pretty skeptical of the idea that restricted television access is a factor in kids being advanced, self-sufficient, or voracious readers. I didn't watch a whole lot of TV as a kid, mostly saturday morning cartoons and nature documentaries (spent a lot of time on the computer and gameboy, though), but my access wasn't restricted, I just had other things that I also liked doing and only so many hours in a day; I read a ton, did workbooks for the fun of it, and had a lot of other interests and hobbies, although not so many "activities" because those are money things and we didn't so much have that. I don't actually know that many bright kids (or adults) who can sit through more than maybe an hour of television without having something else to do as well. And I don't know for sure, but I don't think that watching tv while also doing something else is as bad for you as just sitting there seems to be.
Also, though, a lot of gifted kids are easily overstimulated, and familiar, low-effort things can sometimes be really important.