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Home » 3. The Toddler, 4. The Growing Child, 5. The Adolescent, The Editor's Desk

TV as a Parenting Tool?

Submitted by on Tuesday, July 28 20094 Comments

By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)

TV timeMost parenting experts advise that parents use extreme caution in allowing their child to watch television, especially younger children, and even with educational programming. And many attached parents either don’t allow television at all or only sparingly. But there are some of us who do allow our children to watch TV and are OK with it.

What Makes TV Bad

A study by the University of Washington and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, published in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in June 2009, determines that television-watching significantly delays language development in young children. The reason is, children learn to talk from listening to their parents and when the television is turned on and is audible, parents are less likely to talk to their children.

TV-watching is also associated with obesity, sleep problems, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, violent behavior, and poor school performance.

But what exactly about TV puts children at risk for these problems? The reason is because TV is meant to be a source of entertainment, not a teacher or babysitter. Yes, television captivates children’s attention and can keep them from busy for long periods of time – long enough for a parent to get some chores, work, or a hobby done. But, it’s because TV makes it so easy for parents why it makes it so wrong. It’s not the TV in and of itself putting children at risk of these problems; it’s the parents who aren’t interacting with their children and who aren’t setting boundaries on what their children view, as in the case of violence, sexual behavior, and bad language.

According to the National Institute on Media and the Family, media exposure on children affects their brain development as any other influence, such as parents and teachers. Allowing children to watch sexual or violent material isn’t entertainment – it’s education. As parents, we need to be careful what we’re allowing our children to learn.

So, why not just turn off the TV? Well, many parents do choose this option. But, TV is a part of our culture, just as are cell phones and Internet, and all of these electronics are being incorporated into more of our lives. We can just turn the TV off, or we can teach our children how to use the TV appropriately.

When TV is Good

Regarded for what it is, mostly entertainment, families can use television much as they would a book – helping to provide children exposure to new ideas. As long as the show is developmentally appropriate, small doses of television aren’t harmful. For example, my children enjoy watching Nature on the Public Broadcasting Service which takes viewers all over the world to see wildlife and natural habitat.

Some educational programming is OK, too. According to the Center for Media Literacy, some educational programming each week improves preschoolers’ standardized test scores. Many a foreign-speaking family credits television to learning their home country’s language. And, obviously, the older the child, the more she can learn from watching television, such as keeping up on current events or watching shows that explore science or history. Although many experts don’t give too much credit to TV, educational shows are created using child development specialists and on the back of research studies.

Still, parents should screen all shows before allowing their children to view it, including so-called kid-friendly cartoons, and also watch their child’s reaction to the show. For example, I only let me children watch the “Elmo’s World” on Sesame Street because some of the rest of show didn’t sit well with me. There is sometimes a play on a popular song whose original lyrics I know are not kid-friendly. Plus, while my children were entertained, I would rather have a television program that engages my children enough that they are excited to tell me what they learned later. I am a big fan of Word World on the Public Broadcasting Service, which literally taught my three-year-old her alphabet, and Barney because it inspires my children to get up and dance to the music, and not just sit passively watching the TV.

Used appropriately, television can help some families bond. My family has a movie night each week. We make homemade popcorn together, snuggle up on the couch, and turn on a movie, sometimes a DVD and sometimes on a television network. If the movie is on the television network, we mute commercials and take that time to talk to each other. My children look forward to movie night as a time to do something together just like when we go on a bicycle ride or do another family activity.

The big take-home message is, watch what your kids are watching and know the influence of the content they’re viewing. Also, it’s very important to put some limits on your child’s viewing time. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts recommend no TV time the first two years of life and a limit of two hours for children ages two years old and older, no TV in children’s bedrooms, and no TV during family mealtimes.

A Word about Commercials

There is a component to television that all parents must beware, and that is the advertisements. We can screen television shows and choose age-appropriate programming, and we can limit our children’s time watching television, but commercials are insidious. You may think your children are safe watching Dora the Explorer, and up pops a commercial touting the deliciousness of some unhealthy snack.

Advertisements are designed to persuade. Many commercials aimed at children are to sell a product, such as a toy or food, and besides when your children bother you about wanting to buy such and such, you may not think much more about it. But it’s important, if you allow your children to watch TV, to realize just what the television is exposing your child to. Start to study the commercials that interrupt the shows your child and your family watch. From sexual innuendos to sell clothing to a promo for a violent movie, you’ll start to notice what advertisers are using to try to influence you – and your children – to do what they want you to do.

According to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, marketing is directly linked to childhood obesity and is a factor in the development of eating disorders, precocious sexuality, youth violence, family stress, and children’s reduced ability to play imaginatively. And advertisers want our children’s minds: Companies spend about $17 billion each year marketing to children. TV alone bombards children ages two to 11 years old with more than 25,000 advertisements, which doesn’t include placement of products within television shows and movies. Children under 12 years old influence about $500 billion in purchases every year. Children under 14 years old spend $40 billion each year, and teens spend $159 billion.

There are a number of ways you can reduce influence from commercials while watching the television:

  • Turn off the TV while commercials are on.
  • Change the channel.
  • Mute the TV during commercial time.
  • Watch a TV network without commercials, such as the Public Broadcasting Service.
  • Educate yourself on the influence of marketing. For example, children younger than eight years old are developmentally unable to understand advertising’s intent and therefore rely on their caregivers to regulate marketing exposure for them. With older children, advertisers tend to denigrate adults and exploit children’s desires to fit in with their peers and rebel against authority figures.
  • Teach your older child how to use critical thinking tools to decipher what an advertiser is trying to persuade him to do, how to find the truth in the advertising message, and to take charge of his own buying habits using family values as a basis. To learn more, read the article in the upcoming Summer 2009 “Feeding Our Children” issue of The Attached Family magazine.
  • Use videos/DVDs.

4 Comments »

  • Dawn J. says:

    How refreshing to find a positive article on the selective use of TV. We are deeply involved Attachment parents, and made the decision that since our son is breastfeeding beyond the first year of life, sleeps with us, has a huge range of social activities with both AP parents and children, runs around in nature with his folks, loves books, and attends music classes with his mama, that TV in our home is not going to stunt his development. We do use it sparingly, never watching anything with commercials. But he loves to watch Planet Earth in the evenings, snuggling up in Dada’s lap and listening to Attenborough’s voice while watching the whales. And he’s a big fan of Curious George on PBS. Thanks so much for your writing!

  • Maria R. says:

    Thank you for an informative, balanced article. For those who are interested, there’s a recent book called Into the Minds of Babes that goes through all the studies on toddler and TV. Background TV is the most harmful, and as this article said, educational TV is associated with slight but positive increases in standardized tests. Being informed is key to being a great attached parent! PS The author’s site for the book is here: http://www.lisaguernsey.com/books/booksIntoTheMindsOfBabes.htm I have no connection with the author except I thought the book was well done.

  • Jennifer says:

    Thanks for this balanced article. In our home we probably watch more TV than many other AP families do, something I’ve always felt a little guilty about. However, this tends to be limited to morning news shows and evening “prime time” television, which we’ve found our son (now 17 months) completely ignores. Every now and then he will glance up at the TV and comment on what he sees (“truck!”, for example), but for the most part, he doesn’t pay much attention.

    Once a day we will play a video for him (it’s become part of his pre-nap routine), and these are the only times he really watches TV. We play various Baby Einstein videos, nature documentaries, and “Signing Time”, and we watch with him, discussing what we see. He has learned a great deal from these TV watching sessions, including lots of sign language and words for many animals and objects he may not otherwise have encountered. He even identified a moose on TV recently — and we aren’t sure where he learned that word!

    We have found TV to be another fun way to interact with our son, and it’s refreshing to see an article that doesn’t dismiss it out of hand.

  • [...] the Editor was written in response to an article published on The Attached Family on July 28, 2009, “TV as a Teaching Tool?” The topics on The Attached Family are open for discussion, and readers are welcome to write articles [...]

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