How Much Television Should Your Children Be Watching?

AND DOES TV ROT YOUR BRAIN?



My eldest daughter was 22 the other day- we chatted, and she let me in on a secret. Something that had bugged me for years. In my house I had a tiny office- filled with books, a computer and a picture of Jimi Hendrix. At odd times I discovered the computer on, when I had definitely switched it off. This puzzled me- I couldn't figure out who was turning it on. I blamed my wife, the cat, even the dog. Little did I know that my youngest daughter had hidden behind the curtain and spied on my wife as she logged onto the computer. Children notice everything- but in this instance she only got the first 3 letters- GEN.......But my older daughter came to the rescue- she spotted a book on the shelf- its title read GENESIS. And there was light. In a flash she cracked the password. "Try GENESIS12", she urged my younger daughter. And they were in. They could secretly watch episodes of Friends to their hearts content.


When my daughters were young I was strict about computer and T.V access. I believed that digital media was addictive- and would brainwash them. I imagined that creative children played the cello and categorised their butterfly collections. I had lots of strange ideas when my girls were growing up- I once carefully followed the recipe for a 'Super Porridge'- I soaked 7 different grains though the night, mixed rare honey and potent ginseng roots- this porridge would make my family invincible. But when I proudly dispensed their portions, my oldest daughter put the spoon to her lips, cringed and gave a fatal judgement: "Disgusting- it tastes like mud." All tongues agreed and my Super Porridge went uneaten.


As parents we worry that our children are watching too much television. When we're tired after a busy day- it's easy to plonk them in front of the telly. They'll be happy, we'll get a bit of peace and quiet- what's the problem? The average amount of television watched by children in the UK, aged four to six is 89 minutes. This doesn't include other devices. Children in the UK watch lots of telly. And we parents sigh with dismay because our 3 year old talks incessantly of Peppa Pig- as if she was a family member. Instead of building dens in the garden our 4 year old wants to make fart noises and whizz around like SpongeBob Squarepants. It feels like we're not in control. We ask ourselves, "Who's guiding our children? Not Peepa Pig, surely?


But worse than TV is Youtube- where children can watch anything- no matter how in appropriate. Ryan's World, featuring an eight-year-old unwrapping presents has 24.5 million subscribers. And Coyote Peterson, a presenter who specialises in being bitten by bugs and reptiles has 15.7 million. These shows are crazily popular. I watched a few episodes of both whilst researching this article- to my horror- I was fascinated. I was sucked into Coyote Peterson's adventure- my eyes were hypnotised to the screen- "Surely he won't let that hideous monster of a centipede bite him? Or will he?" Ryan's World was just as bad- I couldn't stop watching. He opened Whoopee cushions, blew them all up- then he and his Dad jumped on them. They made fart noises. Why were these shows so compelling? I asked my youngest daughter, the spy, who often has inside knowledge. "They just hook you in", she said, sagely.


"T.V will rot your brain," my Dad used to say, in his warm Irish brogue. I grew up in the 80's- and devoured episodes of 'He-Man-And The Masters Of The Universe', or even better Dogtanion- with my sister. In the school holidays we jumped out of bed ridiculously early- so we could gobble and guzzle morning cartoons. I'm confident my brain didn't rot. But whilst my sister and I giggled at 'The Smurfs", across the water in Italy television was dominated by Silvo Berlusconi's Mediaset. Unlike the BBC which has championed cultural and educational content- Mediaset had virtually no news or educational programmes- but instead specialised in imported cartoons, quiz shows and soap operas- while overstepping the legal limits for advertising. Mediaset's transmitters covered only half of Italy's population. So when three decades later academics tracked down adults who had grown up in this period- they were able to compare the two groups of children. Those that had been exposed to Mediaset, and those that hadn't.


And the adults that had hoovered up Mediaset's slim pickings and educational crumbs in childhood suffered as a consequence. When tested for literacy and numeracy these adults had worse cognitive skills than their peers- by three to four IQ points. Also boys from areas with Mediaset coverage were more likely to be exempted from national service later in life because they performed poorly on the military's psychometric tests. These adults were also more likely to vote for Bersuloni's Forca Italia Party. The notion that childhood cartoons determine political choices later in life is mind-boggling. And maybe if I hadn't watched so many episodes of Fraggle Rock in childhood my adult brain could fully compute this finding. But one of the scientists behind this research, Ruben Durante, from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, says :


TV doesn't brainwash you.....there's nothing inherently bad about TV. What's important is what the content is and what activities it's crowding out.

My friend Adele, aka The Real Playful Mama is a play worker with a 3 year old little girl- her daughter is half Portuguese and has Japanese, Spanish and Italian friends. She watches cartoons in all these languages- this helps her connect with her multi-cultural friend set. This struck me as a brilliant way of reversing TV brain-rot. When families interact and discuss programmes- when they watch together, laugh together and discover together- then screen time can be absorbed into their lives in a healthier way.



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