Why Television Compromises Academics

Laura Markham's picture

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So your child is starting school and you want to get him off to a good start. What's the most important thing you can do? The answer in the interview below may surprise you: Wean him off TV.

Isn't that a little extreme?

Yes, it is. I do take an extreme position on TV compared to most people in the U.S., where TV watching is so constant in most households.

But there is no question that TV does get in the way of kids developing as readers. Research shows that as kids get older, the more TV they watch, the less likely they are to read. Time spent on the one activity precludes the other. And once kids develop the habit of TV, they are less likely to seek out books of their own accord. Books -- which are more work -- just can't compete with the lure of the screen.

Does that mean that kids should never watch TV?

My view is that kids should watch as little as possible, so that it is a special occasion, like going to a movie, rather than a daily habit. My wish for every child is that reading should become a daily habit. Once the habit of reading is ingrained, it can compete with electronic media and it's ok to introduce TV sparingly, so kids have some clue what their friends are talking about.

But when children are little, before they can read, isn't TV ok?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not watch TV or videos at all, and that older children watch only one to two hours per day AT MOST of nonviolent, educational TV without advertising.

My own view is that 2- to 8-year-olds should watch only occasional TV, so it doesn't become a habit. TV actually changes the way kids' brains develop, and shortens their attention spans for other activities. It also changes our brain chemistry, at least temporarily, and for some people that can be addictive. Kids have lots of developmental tasks, from playing with other kids to building block towers, and TV can keep kids from those tasks.

I don't think any parent would disagree that children under the age of eight should not be watching any violent TV. There is substantial research confirming that the more commercial TV children watch, the more likely they are to exhibit aggression with other children.

Isn't public television ok?

I know there's some very good programming on public TV. But even public TV sets up the passive habit of watching and starts the addiction. By the time he's eight, if not much earlier, he won't be watching only public TV anymore. 44% of children and teens report watching different programs when their parents are not around. Most parents have given up trying to control what their kids watch by the time they're ten. And while ten-year-olds should have some control over their own viewing, most parents of ten-year-olds agree that they want to set some limits.

Also, habitual TV, even educational TV, limits the child's own innate imagination. Preschool teachers always know the kids who watch a lot of TV, because those kids don't seem capable of making up original stories -- their internal world is populated by TV heroes and plots.

So if you need an occasional babysitter, is public TV ok?

Of course. But if you set up a regular relationship with it, remember that your child isn't just developing a relationship with public TV, but with TV in general.

Doesn't Sesame Street teach children to read?

I know that kids can learn their letters from Sesame Street. But kids whose parents read to them daily actually learn to read earlier than kids who have the poor substitute of Sesame Street. Kids learn vocabulary mostly from the conversations they have with us; it's an active usage learning rather than a passive learning.

So of course I will read to and talk to my child. But doesn't Sesame Street help?

Is Sesame Street bad for kids? There is some evidence that the quick cutting that toddlers get used to as they view it is bad for their attention spans, but in the general scheme of risk factors, I wouldn't rank Sesame Street very high!

Bottom line, though, in my view, is that the downside of the addiction isn't worth it. I don't know a single child who started with Sesame Street and did not go on to "harder stuff," and that stuff -- commercial TV -- has been proven to be a risk factor, because of the violence, the sex, the destructive messages about what's a permissable way to look, and of course the ads. Just the habit of watching TV at all is a risk factor. But I do know many children who never watched Sesame Street, because TV watching just wasn't something their families did. Every one of them is a precocious reader and an excellent student.

But how awful to constantly have to tell your kids they can't watch TV.

Actually, if it has never been part of their world at home, younger kids are unlikely to ever ask, even if they see TV at friends' houses. I personally decided it would be worse for me to have the constant struggle of setting limits around TV watching, than to simply leave it out of our lives. In our family, that was the right decision and we didn't miss it. Of course, every family is different. And kids change as they get older, some kids will ask to watch what their friends are watching when they reach age ten or so, and you may decide to let them watch at that point.

What do I do without TV to occupy my child? I can't imagine.

You wouldn't let your child do other self-destructive things just to keep him busy. So why TV? But actually kids who have never watched TV are much more resourceful about keeping themselves entertained, because they are used to it. I have never seen a toddler who wasn't busy. And busy toddlers who don't watch TV grow into busy preschoolers who are engaged with the world and don't complain about being bored.

The kids I know who didn't grow up watching TV learn to structure their own time. They don't only read, of course. They run around more. They tend to be more creative, whether writing stories or building animal zoos. And they certainly don't need entertaining all the time, because they haven't gotten used to being entertained.

This may all be true, but sometimes I need to put my toddler in front of the screen while I tend to the baby. There is no other option.

Of course. Some moms tell me they use it every Sunday morning so they can have sex with their husbands. We've all used the screen to occupy our children sometimes. But occasional use is very different than a daily habit.

One option is to keep a stash of movies that you feel good about. That way, the child doesn't get used to TV episodes, and because he sees the movies over and over, usually he doesn't find them so appealing that he will give up building towers to watch. Of course, given the nature of addiction, toddlers can still howl for the same movie over and over.

I watched TV and it didn't hurt me.

This is not your mom's TV. Seriously, the level of violence is up dramatically. The constant commodification of sex now was unthinkable in the relatively prudish days of our childhoods. The commercial messages are developed with extensive research to be as insidious as possible.

I love TV, and I always have. I watch it, and I watch it with my child.

One of the most positive things I can say about TV is that it is a bonding experience for many parents and teens or middle-schoolers, and I am not against using it that way.

But I was appalled by recent research showing that half of all American adults would not give up TV for under a million dollars. The other half wouldn't give it up at all. (I guess the rest of us are so few as to be statistically insignificant!) That to me is the essence of addiction: the unwillingness to give up a behavior that puts bad stuff into your body or mind, and uses up resources (time or money) you would like to use on other things that would help you to flourish.

I guess I am not convinced that TV is so harmful to me, or my kids, if used judiciously.

Obviously, commercial TV is what is really harmful, not public television. And the more TV, the worse the effects. So there is no question that judicious use is a whole lot better than daily use. But since TV is addictive, usage increases over time. And we all lie to ourselves about how bad our addictions are.

And let's face it: even moderate TV use can't be considered GOOD for your child. We've already discussed the fact that preschoolers who watch TV are rated as less creative by their teachers. Did you know that elementary school kids who watch TV have more fears than kids who don't, and that the same is true of their parents? That middle schoolers who watch TV are much more likely to be sexual with other kids? That the more TV teens watch, the more likely they are to be sexual earlier, and the more likely they are to have body image issues and eating disorders?

It sounds like you're lumping two-year-olds in with teenagers!

Most of the time, two-year-olds who get used to watching TV become eight-year-olds who like to watch TV who become fifteen-year-olds who like to watch TV.I personally would rather have my fifteen-year-old watch minimal TV, because research shows that the more TV people watch, the less healthy they are physically and emotionally. But obviously a fifteen-year-old is deciding what to do with his own time most of the time. And that's the real point: kids who start out with the habit of TV usually retain it as an important part of their lives and are influenced by it at each stage. And the more TV teens watch, the less healthy they are emotionally. (I admit that this is a chicken or egg dilemma, of course.)

I am concerned that if I deny them TV, my kids will be pariahs in their peer group. They will have no way to relate to other kids.

I know lots of kids who don't watch TV. They find ways to relate to other kids. Hopefully, TV does not completely dominate kids lives, does it? Some of them do find it challenging within their peer group not to know much about TV, although usually those kids make up for their lack of TV knowledge with their extra creativity and their well-read minds. However, once reading is established, I am not against small quantities of TV, such as watching a specific popular weekly show just so they'll know what the other kids are talking about.

My own daughter never watched TV until she was ten, unless she was home sick from school. At that point, she began to feel left out when kids at school discussed TV, and I gave her carte blanche to watch on weekends once her homework was done, as long as the shows seemed appropriate for her age. She does tape shows from during the week, and watches occasionally on weekends, but since she never got into the habit, she generally prefers to do other things.

So your daughter did ask to watch TV when she got to be ten?

Yes, I think kids that age start being more concerned with what their peers are discussing, and it's hard for them to be different.

Reading is great. But I don't want to raise a nerd. I want my kids to be well-rounded. Depriving kids of TV seems like such a hard line position.

I know it seems that way if you love to watch TV. But my kids say they never felt deprived, or like they were "not allowed" to watch TV, just that it wasn't something our family ever did. They're known as kids who read a lot, but they also play sports, act in the school plays, etc, so they're hardly social outcasts. Well rounded, in my view, means developing their bodies, intellects, social skills, spirituality, and emotional intelligence. I don't think watching folks bump each other off on TV would help them be any better rounded than they are. In fact, I think it would cut into their athletics and creative pursuits.

But what do you do when you're watching and they're around?

It may sound strange, but I have never turned on our TV unless there's a news crisis or someone I know is being interviewed. I always have too much else I'd rather do. If I just want to chill out, I read. Or I sit and meditate, which always rejuvenates me. I realize that wouldn't work for everyone, but our house is a lot more pleasant without TV. I am grateful to be able to minimize the violent and manipulative images that go into all of our minds.

Do you mean no one at your house watches the news?

My husband and I read the daily newspaper, and various magazines. My fifteen-year-old has started reading the newspaper this year. We listen to NPR. We only watch the TV news for a reason -- election returns, a major crisis. And even now that my daughter is eleven, I shield her from the worst crises. I still have images from Hurricane Katrina in my memory that I'm glad she doesn't have in hers.

Surely 11 is old enough to know what's going on in the world?

We talk all the time at the dinner table about what's going on in the world. What would be gained by her watching sensationalistic news reports about people hurt or dying? Studies show that kids who watch TV news are harmed by it -- they become more fearful. Actually, studies show that even adults who watch TV news believe the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is, but that's a different discussion.

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com