Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Is TV my Supernanny?

This is a rhetoric question because since we’ve been back from our holidays, Michela has been watching TV for longer than I’m comfortable with.

I tell myself: ‘At least she’s watching educational videos/DVD (Spot’s Alphabet, Mr Men’s Alphabet, Postman Pat’s 123, Animal Numbers, Fun with ABC and Mister Fuzzy Felt's Nursery Rhymes) and quality programmes like Titch, Sesame Street, In the Night Garden and Noddy (the puppet series).

Although she’s only 2, she's articulate, keen on counting (up to 20 now and can do simple maths) and learning to read (she can read Toyota on my partner’s car). She loves books and reads in bed with me most mornings. She also likes being active - if I propose a fun activity, she will forgo the TV and join in. And often the TV becomes a background noise as she starts playing with her toys.

However, despite all these buts, I feel I’m guilty of parking her in front of the TV so I can get on with writing or doing household chores.

Experts’ views
Dr Aric Sigman, associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, told MPs in 2007 that watching TV puts children at risk of health problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obesity. He recommended that children under three shouldn't be exposed to TV at all. And children between three and seven should watch no more than 30 minutes to an hour a day. He also asked the Government to publish recommended daily guidelines for TV watching.

Other experts are less extreme in their views, advising parents to choose TV programmes with an educational value, in which the fun factor can foster learning. They also recommend parents to watch TV with their children – which I sometimes do as I love kids programmes (I admit I bought the full series of Bagpuss for myself). The key is to strike the right balance and set limits.

This is all very well with an older child, but it’s quite hard to reason with a clever toddler going through the Terrible Twos phase. And she is not easy to manipulate either, she always knew what she wanted since the start – remember her hatred of the Moses basket?

Another piece of advice is to lead by example. Well, I rarely watch daytime TV, I’m mostly online, working on something or other. But as soon as alarm bells ring, I switch off the TV and try to suggest some activity for her to do, and mostly end up having to play with her.

It’s hard as I want to spend time with her but she expects me to be her playmate all day long. As she refuses to go to sleep in the afternoon and goes to bed between 8 and 9pm, I am struggling to keep up. After a bit of play with her, I get tired and/or need to do some work and the TV goes back on. This is especially true of rainy days, today it’s sunny so she is happily playing with sand in the garden as I type.

In his report, Dr Sigman stated that, aside the health risks, allowing children under three to watch TV can impair their social and linguistic development. I’m not sure about this bit, Michela could speak well since she was one and she has an amazing repertoire of nursery rhymes which she sings at home and when we are out and about. I often join in while we are cruising the supermarket’s aisles. Plus she learnt to count/recognise figures from a TV programme.

What do you think?
But enough about me and let’s hear from other parents. I kick off the debate with opinions that were posted on the NCT editors’ forum when Dr Sigman’s report hit the headlines.

argues that there are some wonderful television shows and DVDs that demand action by children and probably parents too. ‘Who could watch the Wiggles without dancing and singing along? What better way to learn the alphabet than with Elmo’s gentle guidance? How many of us have tried trickle painting or made crazy icecream sundaes with our children after watching Teletubbies? As for Sigman’s language anxiety – how many of us have seen our children’s language expand exponentially as they learn words and phrases from their favourite shows? Or seen them gradually learning social conventions from examples on screen and then apply them with growing confidence in everyday life? It seems strange to me that Dr Sigman is worried about children not having any attention span… because they are paying too much attention to the television! I say embrace the learning and entertainment possibilities that televisual entertainment – particularly DVDs – offers to us and our children!’

Another editor also called Emma says: ‘I was really relieved to hear of another mum who, like me, has the TV on most of the day in the background. It seems to be becoming such a taboo to admit your children watch any TV but it's fairly obvious when they know the catchphrases and can identify names of every character in the programmes! My son is also nearly 3 and has a great vocabulary, and I have no worries with him developmentally at all. In fact the programme Numberjacks taught him to count. How can that possibly be a bad thing? I talk to him about the programmes and we make up stories about the characters. TV is such a stimulating medium that, in the right hands, it can be a fantastic tool to your child's development. Obviously you do have to be selective. I stick solely to the programmes that are designed for his age group, and try to avoid channels with adverts (although it does make me laugh when he says with a very serious expression that he wants the Barbie fairy karaoke wings!!). Another great thing about having the TV on very often is that it stops being a “big thing”, and he doesn't beg to watch it or complain if we turn it off. Also round friends' houses its not a problem if it isn't on. Finally, I watch quite a bit of TV myself and always have, and I refuse to be a hypocrite and say it’s not good for you. I'm a teacher so it can't have done me too much harm.’

Pete says: ‘Let's start with how much my two children are allowed to watch: Isaac - aged 8 and Abigail - aged 10. In the week - none before school, and possibly 30 mins after tea. During the weekend, one hour or so before breakfast, and maybe two hours in the evening. They watch The Simpsons - good to develop an alternative sense of humour (though most of it goes over their heads); wildlife; cookery programmes, Scrap Heap Challenge. They used to watch Tellytubbies, Fimbles, the usual stuff, plus Tom & Jerry (nothing wrong about politically incorrect cartoon violence); Danger Mouse and Art Attack (they still love it). To be honest we have controlled their telly watching for the following reasons:
1. If they watch too much before breakfast they get very 'arsy' afterwards
2. There's a wide world out their waiting to be explored
3. It makes it more of a treat when we actually sit down for 3 hours on a rainy day and watch a Harry Potter DVD or back to back Blue Planet on DVD
4. As parents we have never been great TV watchers
My daughter would watch TV for England given half the chance, but Isaac gets bored after an hour and will go find something else to do. My view is that report is a bit simplistic. I suspect that parents who do not partake of the appropriate social intercourse with children are more of a contributory factor in terms of brain developement, and if the parents are sedentary then I suppose the childern may also take on that aspect of obesity.
I would say TV is a catalyst to conditions, just like the motor car is in terms of making us fat and lazy, and socially isolated in our travelling environment. If we had no cars, more children might play in the streets, and actually find less reasons to watch TV.
So I think TV (like the car) when used appropriately can be used to broaden the education of children, however to let them sit in front of the inane guff that is on Cartoon network does not do them nay harm if it is balanced with other TV and non TV activities. Abigail has always been advanced for her age, with an IQ somewhere about 2 years ahead of her actual age, and Isaac has an IQ 4 years ahead of his age. We did a lot of reading with them when they were younger, and also where ever we went we would point out things. In some ways we behaved a bit like Telletubbies ourselves by pointing out and observing what was going on. I also take a view that Dr Aric is probably a psychologist not a scientist, and maybe parents should read Mapping The Mind by Rita Carter, a fascinating book that talks on simple language about how the human brain works, and why it has evolved to be so, and talks how lack of love and attention is a huge factor in children.

My top tips: if you want to keep your baby entertained while you're busy, read If you have a toddler, read I’m going to give play dough a whirl next time it rains! And if you want to get out and about with other like-minded parents, why not join the NCT? I love their socials! Visit
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