T.V. Or Not T.V. – That Is The Question

I love television! You love television too. C’mon, admit it, even if you think you spend too much time watching T.V., you love it. Television is an incredible invention and tool. It informs, entertains, passes the time, and creates loads of water cooler topics for us all to chat about while we aren’t watching T.V. Now, with the advent of first, cable programming, then satellite television, there are a seemingly endless supply of shows we can watch. Too many, in fact, for a single person to watch all of, so along came Picture-in-Picture, TiVo and DVRs, followed quickly by DVDs of television shows, webcasts, and iPod downloads. We watch comedies, drama, sports, documentaries, reality shows, then shows about reality shows, and awful “celebrity news” programs about the people on the shows about reality shows. Let me just sum this paragraph up by simply stating the following: TMZ? OMG!

I have also loved television for as long as I remember. I have very fond and vivid memories of watching “Sesame Street”, “Electric Company”, and “Zoom” on PBS back when I was four or five years old living on the north side of Chicago. I remember the intro music to the nightly news shows my dad watched religiously (and still does). I can still sing word-for-word the jingles for Empire Carpets, Aronson Furniture, and Townhouse T.V. and Appliances. I remember all those Saturday morning cartoons and watching sitcom after sitcom like “Welcome Back Kotter”, “Barney Miller”, and “Alice” after school every day. In recent years I was truly addicted to several shows including “Lost”, “Survivor”, “The Amazing Race”, and “CSI” (yes, the Vegas one – do the others even deserve the “CSI” name?). Finally, of course, I don’t let a Sunday go by without watching 6+ hours of NFL football, though I do try to get out of the house and be social for those.

Wow, sounds like I must have a rotted brain, obese body, high blood pressure, and a propensity for violent behavior, right? Nope. Aside from being a little softer around the middle, and perhaps a little less sharp than my interestingly television-free college years, I am a pretty healthy, happy, and good natured person with a good head on his shoulders, thank you. Does this mean that too much T.V. is in no way detrimental to human development? No way!

Many studies have been done that effectively demonstrate that excessive television viewing in early childhood leads to a higher risk of all the nastiness I listed above. Just to reinforce, that was obesity, high blood pressure, delayed or reduced capacity to learn reading and writing skills, and aggressive or violent behavior and mannerisms. I guess the key question is what constitutes “too much”? It appears as though the general consensus is that any television is worse than no television, but let’s be honest about the reality of a child growing up in America and never watching any television. From what I have read, it sounds like the scientific suggestion is that 4 hours or more daily is excessive, and progressively less than that is progressively better. So, now you know what to do with your children, just cut back that television time, right? Wrong.

Like almost everything else in life, that is simplifying the issue way too much. Let’s assume that children are going to watch television. In my case, the primary child watching television is my two and a half year old son, Xavier. Xavier likes a handful of television programs, and probably watches too much television. It is frustrating for both my wife and I as we would like to curtail his viewing habits more than we have, but between my money-making efforts and her caring for seven month old Hayden in addition to Xavier, television is a convenient distraction, and allows us to get the necessities done. You might think that makes us bad parents, and you have a right to your opinion, but there is more to it than that.

Here are some of the ways that we try to make the time he spends watching television effective, and hopefully less damaging to his development:

  • Avoid programming that includes commercials. Fortunately, we get the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and Noggin to complement our PBS channel. I know that Disney and PBS are commercial free, and I believe Noggin is as well. Commercials suck! They are well-produced and have a very definite objective to sell products and/or services to us. The benefit that they entertain us only makes their messages more powerful, and is in no way their primary objective. Children, toddlers in particular, can’t discern between commercials and regular programming, and can often immediately want the things they see on commercials. They can do the same with things they see on television programs, but generally the programs aren’t specifically trying to sell them something, so the impact is perhaps lessened.
  • Choose programming that encourages the viewers to be interactive, physically active, and thinking. Perhaps “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” isn’t the greatest, but throughout that show, the characters ask questions directly to the “camera” and even pause so the child can respond. Mickey and his pals will also encourage the child to get up off his or her butt and march, dance, skip, and stretch. Other favorites of ours that at least try to be educational include “Word World” and “Sid the Science Kid”. I am not claiming that these shows will turn our young boy into a super-genius (his genes will do that), but they are relatively entertaining even for adults which helps us interact as well and ask him questions about what he watched, what he thought of it, and heap praise on him when he demonstrates having learned something during the show.
  • Get him actively playing and exploring outside the home for several hours each day, or inside if and outdoor excursion is either unmanageable or unaffordable. We utilize a local playground, the nearby train stations, and our very walkable urban neighborhood. Xavier has had the opportunity to explore some of the greatest museums our country has to offer, including the outstanding Children’s Museum on Navy Pier. FYI, if you live in Chicago, you can go to any local library and check out free passes to most of the city’s museums, pending their availability, of course.
  • Read to him every night before bed, and randomly throughout the day. During reading, it is important to keep the child engaged by asking questions about the story, what he thinks might happen next, what he would do in that situation, and other questions along those lines. We need to make more time to read to him, and encourage him to “read” alone as well.

With all that said, there are some weak points we need to correct, but struggle to balance. I have mentioned often in the past that Xavier loves trains. It is no surprise he would, they are big powerful machines that are ever present in our neighborhood as we live only blocks away from the two major commuter train stations in Chicago (Union Station and Ogilvie Transportation Center), and steps from the Green/Pink CTA elevated line (the “El”). Along with that love of trains comes a love for train videos and shows. Xavier will watch everything from “Thomas the Tank Engine”, to a DVD series appropriately title “I Love Toy Trains”, and a surprisingly gargantuan assortment of train videos available for viewing on YouTube.

While the train videos seem innocent, they have a few drawbacks that are causing us to become more strict about his time spent viewing them. First, while not commercials, they are selling us something…toy trains, imagine that! I have to admit that I have at times gotten swept into the collectible nature of the Thomas the Tank Engine characters, of which there are many more than you might imagine. We use the wooden variety (they also are available in die cast and a plastic motorized version), which cost anywhere from $10-$30 retail per character. The various buildings and accouterments are even more wallet-thinning ringing in for prices extending well into the $100+ range. Now that he has discovered actual “O” and “HO” scale toy trains I can only imagine how high the prices of his wish lists will climb.

These shows and videos can also be quite violent. Not in the shooting way that cop shows and war movies are, nor in the reality defying catastrophic injury manner of such cartoons as “Bugs Bunny” or “Tom and Jerry” are, but rather in the frequency and seriousness of the train derailments and other disasters that saturate the Thomas series. Even in the “I Love Toy Trains” series which features video of actual toy train layouts in various shops and basements, the “funny” moments involve trains crashing and derailing. I have no doubt in my mind that Xavier’s tendency to involve crashing in all aspects of his play come directly from our decision to introduce him to the “Thomas the Tank Engine” video series. Recently, I have found myself catching him in the midst of reenacting scenes from the videos, stopping him from completing the scene, and explaining that trains crashing is actually very far from funny, and that people get very hurt when train crashes happen (regardless of how incredibly powerful they are to watch).

So, I’m not so much looking for advice as much as sharing our experience with television, and wondering if others would be willing to share their challenges with this battle (and by battle, I men with the ubiquitousness of television more than the battle with the child wanting to watch it). This is something that is very difficult to avoid due to the demands on our time, and can’t be even close to unique to us.

I’d also love to know from the parents out there if and by how much having children has curtailed their own television watching habits. I have significantly reduced mine, and now will not even watch a single episode of a new show knowing my own propensity to becoming “hooked”. I still watch “Heroes”, will not miss “Lost”, and try to keep up with “The Amazing Race”. I still watch a lot of football on Sunday and most Monday Nights. I have lost touch with “How I Met Your Mother”, “Survivor”, and “The Big Bang Theory”. The only other show in the rotation is “The Biggest Loser” which, at two hours per episode is both way too long and easy to cut away from sporadically to get things done. Those people on that show are both inspirational and indicative of the epidemic of obesity in America, and it is something I like to keep up with.

Thank you, and Goodnight.

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2 Responses

  1. Good points. We have found the interactive programming to be helpful as well–the little ones rarely just sit and watch but are jumping, dancing, etc.

  2. Wow, it sounds like you’re doing things right when it comes to TV. One of the biggest differences in childhood between today and 30 years ago is the sedentary childhood so many kids have today which sets the stage for unhealthy bodies later in life.

    You’re keeping his mind active and engaged and reading to him. This is so important! My Dad read to me all the time and I credit that for my love of reading and books ever since.

    You’re also keeping him physically active. Excellent! You’re setting the groundwork for a healthy child and adult.

    The other big challenge is eating well. Alot of our eating habits are established in childhood and that’s the other part of the childhood obesity equation.

    I don’t know how two working parents can do this, which is probably why the majority of kids today are so fat and unhealthy. But if you lay the groundwork in early childhood, it becomes easier to manage as they grow older.

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