Parents must think outside the TV box

A growing body of research suggests TV-watching for under threes hinders their brain development and prevents them from developing an active imagination.

JUGGLING children, household needs and work and can be challenging. Sometimes you just have to make dinner or answer the phone — and this is where the TV can come in handy. However, researchers point out that TV viewing is not good for developing minds, especially very young children.

Aric Sigman, a psychologist and biologist based in Britain is the author of Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives (Vermilion).

He says there are growing medical concerns about children under three watching TV as this is the time in their lives when they are experiencing most brain development.

“What they are exposed to affects the shape, size and function of their brains,” he says.

“All the research says no TV for children under three, as little as possible up to the age of seven and from ages five to 12 only suitable TV with supervision,” says parenting expert Sheila O’Malley.

“TV is highly addictive and difficult to turn off. Habits established in childhood are there for life,” she says.

So what exactly is it about watching TV that is harmful to children?

“The thing that is doing the damage is the movement on screen,” says Dr Sigman.

“Damage occurs irrespective of whether children are watching educational programmes or tacky advertising - it’s the medium rather than the message, although the message can cause other problems like a child who wants to eat the fast food he sees advertised,” he says.

Editing speeds are faster than in the past. There are now more zooms, pans, singing, dancing, colour, movement and novelty in children’s TV programmes.

TV, says Dr Sigman, hands over readymade images so that the brain doesn’t have to work to paint pictures with words, and this prevents children from developing an imagination.

Sheila O’Malley also has concerns. “Kids’ TV programmes can be quite violent and teach children that violence is a way to solve problems.

“A lot of the time children are watching programmes designed for adults - some of the plots of soaps for example are very extreme and not suitable for children,” she says.

While we tend to believe that children should be encouraged to view more educational programmes, Dr Sigman takes a different view.

“The term educational TV was invented by people who sell programmes. Parents should see TV as something to be rationed and controlled. They should think about how much time watching TV is acceptable and not let it happen benignly in the background,” says Dr Sigman.

“All parents know they don’t always meet their goals, but it’s important to have a yardstick. My children watch TV but I don’t kid myself that it’s good for them,” he says.

Sheila O’Malley says it’s okay to discuss what children want to watch and agree on a particular programme, channel or period of time. But it’s not good to just have it on for hours on end and moving from one programme to another.

“The number one job of a parent is to be a role model and be the change you want to see so limit your own viewing and set rules in place early,” she says.

¦ MUM’S VIEW: Parenting adviser Alison Canavan has a toddler called James. She uses Netflix Just for Kids. This new service allows families to watch child-friendly TV programmes and films with no advertising. It is available on the PS3, PC and Mac, Nintendo Wii and Apple TV.

Parents can search for their child’s favourite character, for age appropriate content and for genres such as superheroes, princesses, dinosaurs and girl power.

“I lived in the USA for years and had Netflix there,” says Alison.

“James is mad into Thomas the Tank Engine and it is great to know that he can watch his favourite programme with no commercials, and I can control what he is watching.

“It’s all about utilising TV in a positive way. I sit down with James to watch Thomas and ask him about colours and characters. It is not mindless watching.

“Before children are born you swear you won’t let them watch TV, eat sweets etc but you need them to watch it sometimes. Yet you don’t want them to be sold stuff constantly.

“Children’s TV watching is a bit of a minefield but in general it’s okay as long as you use it as a tool for learning and interaction is the key,” she says.

¦ For details about Alison Canavan’s work see: http://alisoncanavan.com/

¦ Sheila O’Malley’s website is www.practicalparenting.ie.

¦ Netflix costs €6.99 per month — www.netflix.com/Ireland

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