Apparently a bunch of folks are going nutso because Sesame Street is now producing a line of videos targeted at kids 6 months to two years old. Critics, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, contend that babies shouldn’t watch any TV under the age of two. The reason? It may be harmful.
I had never heard of the “no TV under two” guideline. And frankly, when I started to write this post I didn’t take the critics concerns too seriously. I mean, TV has now been around for 50 years. That’s at least two generations of people watching TV; including many of us who grew up with a TV on in the house all the time even if we weren’t watching it. I think we would have noticed by now if anyone had developed serious side effects. But wanting to be thorough I googled quite a few articles about TV and kids/toddlers.
Then a funny thing happened. I started to freak out.
Even though in all the articles I read about TV’s potentially harmful effects the words “may,” “could” and “suggests” were used prominently, usually also followed by the phrase “more study needed”, they were freaking me out. Even though a lot of the data seemed full of holes and some of the study methods sounded questionable (I swear, one article “study” was based solely on phone surveys – yeah, that’s controlled research) I started doubting that the educational programming I let Chance watch (and that’s all he gets to watch) was harming him. Cookie Monster is the devil in disguise.
Then I had to reel myself in from my freak out.
I’m not saying that TV is the best thing in the world for kids. I think most of us agree that it’s not healthy to park our kids in front of the TV for hours on end or let them watch shows without supervision. I’m just saying I don’t think the argument “we don’t know what it’ll do” is a valid reason to shoot it all down either. (That’s an argument we hear a lot about a whole range of things in our society. I call it the argument of the quantifiable unknown – it’s easy to say “don’t take the risk” when you don’t know if there is a risk involved in the first place. Plus, this argument just doesn’t make sense to me, it’s OK to get in a car even though car accidents kill hundreds of people every year, but don’t let your kids watch TV because.)
The usual arguments are as follows: TV leads to short attention spans and/or ADD. TV leads to violent and aggressive behavior. TV means kids won’t read. TV leads to obesity.
The TV was on almost all the time while I was growing up. Ironically, I learned to read; proficiently and indulged in it in copious amounts, I might add. I have quite a good attention span, thank you. Any violent tendencies I am prone to I learned from other family members (purple nurple, anyone?). I am not obese either, though this is the ONE argument I can actually see happening with kids.
What we seem to be really good at in our culture is perpetuating and sustaining myths. For example, there is a common myth that city life is generally unhealthy whereas country life is much healthier. This is a left-over misconception from the first Industrial Revolution when city life really was a cesspool of ill health and disease. Today statistical data shows that people are actually much healthier in cities and urban areas because of better access to medical facilities. However, I think that if you talked to most people they will general say that the country air is healthy for you.
Another myth: MTV has caused a generation of us to have short attention spans. Really? This is why, of course, teenagers can play online networked games for hours on end with their friends (I’ve seem ‘em do it); why Hollywood keeps making three hour epic movies (which really is too long, not for the attention span but because my butt gets tired sitting all that time); and why Amazon has made so much money selling books to people who apparently don’t have the patience to read them. It’s all MTV’s fault.
And of course, the final myth: TV causes violence. It doesn’t have anything to do with certain inherent violent tendencies in human beings in general. It’s the TV. One of the articles about kids and television discussed a study where they showed babies video clips of actors portraying neutral, positive, or negative (i.e. violent or aggressive) act. The babies responded to the negative acts by being aggressive themselves. The babies did not respond to the positive or neutral acts. Now the article implied that this suggested proof that TV was bad for your kids. Not that violence/aggression in general seemed to be catchy, and that this tendency should be studied, but that TV was bad. However, Romans feeding people to lions, the Inquisition, slavery as an industry – those all occurred without benefit of TV’s influence. Of course, I’m not going to dispute that a kid left alone to watch violent or inappropriate shows might develop wrong behaviors or ideas about violence – but the jump in logic to blaming the medium instead of the lack of parental supervision blows my mind. (We don’t condemn all books as being bad, even if some of those are excessively violent too.)
I have the TV on almost all the time as background noise and I suspect many other parents do this as well. If I don’t have the TV on, the radio is on. When the TV is on during the day it’s almost always tuned to children’s educational programming. My son Chance does watch TV. Sporadically. If a song he likes is on. Or the Noggin promos with the business people (he loves those). There are only two or three programs he will watch all the way through. One of these is Play With Me Sesame (a whopping 20 minutes long), the other is Classical Baby (half hour shows). They are educational, non-violent, age-appropriate programs. These are two shows under fire in articles by the “experts”. One of the critics scoffed at the idea that babies could absorb culture from a TV show. (Which I thought was really funny considering how much classical music I learned from Bugs Bunny.)
To some extent I think we DO know (at a gut level) what TV will do. We all grew up with it. Sure, unbeknownst to us we might all be slightly brain damaged from TV, but if so I think we’re all damaged together. When I hear “experts” say TV viewing is not an “ideal environment” for developing children, I have to ask… compared to what? Compared to a hundred years ago when most kids dropped out of school by sixth grade to work? Compared to a hundred years before that when many people didn’t even read? This modern age is very recent compared to the long history of the human race. I’m not sure we know what “ideal” is.
Sometimes I worry that we’ve built a culture so dependent on “data” that we forget that we really haven’t been taking down that data for very long. We are still very early in studying many things, keeping statistical records, and our power of creating mythos from hearsay is far stronger than the data we’ve gathered so far. Perhaps the rise of TV coincidentally occurred at a time when records of violent crimes became more consistent and more accessible. Maybe TV leads to violence and maybe it doesn’t. Maybe we just hear about worldwide violence more through our modern news mediums, so we assume that we’ve become more violent. Maybe we’re also trying to kill the messenger just a little too much. Maybe we need another fifty years of data and perspective.
In conclusion, I think I have no conclusion. I find all the arguments, all the inconclusive studies, at turns irritating, worrisome, confusing, and exasperating. (I even started and stopped this post several times, as it alternated between funny, thoughtful, and a full-out rant.) It is one of my pet peeves of the modern era, I believe in the power of scientific study but I get irritated by the way people and the media will glom onto one facet of one study without looking at the big picture; without even realizing that it might be a while before we can even step back to see the big picture. Some of the articles out there would make us more fearful of watching TV than driving on the freeways. I think most of us know the TV is not a substitute for interaction with our kids. Neither should it be used as a babysitter. And yet it is a facet of every day life for many of us. One of the experts said (paraphrased) that babies watching TV was “risky” and was tantamount to running “an uncontrolled experiment” on your children.
But I kind of feel life is an uncontrolled experiment. I know for sure that life is risky; hundreds of years of history have statistically proven the data on that account.
For now I am going to continue to let Chance watch Play With Me Sesame. (I’m holding out for some real data before I feel too guilty.) How do you all feel? And what are you doing about TV and your kids? - the weirdgirl