Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Saying "No Thanks!" to TV for young children

As parents, we are constantly bombarded by the media and peer pressure about ways to make our children smarter - to the point that we often ignore the people and institutions that really know what is best for children.  For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (as well as almost every specialist in child development) suggests than babies under two years old watch no television, at all, and that older kids watch very little, and also limit all screen use.  Yet, as a society, we largely ignore this.  

 I have always believed in limiting screen time to some degree, but I was always more worried about content.  We don't have cable, and when we did, Aiden only watched Noggin or DVDs such as Baby Einstein or Elmo's World, so I didn't have to worry about him seeing commercials or anything inappropriate.  TV was a part of our mornings for a long time. He was an early riser, and I admit that I used it as a babysitter while I got a little more rest on the couch.  He also often watched up to an hour in the afternoons.  I thought, "Surely if I only let him watch educational shows, with no commercials, for just an hour or two a day, it won't be harmful." This is simply not true.  Every parenting book I have read warns that TV really is very detrimental for children - and not only because of things like  violence, marketing targeted toward kids, and the fact that it fosters a sedentary, and therefore, physically unhealthy lifestyle.

Researchers have determined that babies, up to age 2, need 3 types of stimuli to optimize brain growth:

 1- Interaction with parents and other human beings
 2- Opportunities to manipulate their environment (to touch, feel, and move things)
 3- "Problem-solving" activities, such as figuring out object permanence (games like peek-a-boo)

TV provides none of these stimuli.  In fact, in Simplicity Parenting, Payne states, "Multiple studies have now concluded that watching TV, even such educational programs as Sesame Street, actually delays language development." Hearing someone on TV sing the ABCs is actually not the same as hearing someone do so in real life.  The language centers of the brain only light up on a brain scan if they are spoken by a human rather than a recording!

Television and other screens have detrimental effects on older children as well.  Dmitri Christakis, a researcher at Children's Hospital states, "We think that with continued exposure to high intensity, unrealistic action, you're conditioning the mind to expect that level of input."  Real life, in comparison, can seem quite slow, and children can respond with boredom and inattentiveness.

I can attest to this personally.   When we moved, we got rid of cable, and we started to explore our new city.  We were busy all the time, and rarely watched any TV.  Then it got hot, we ran out of things to do, and couldn't play outside with the heat, so I started letting Aiden watch more TV and play more video games - a lot more.  I could tell a difference in him - his attention span did seem shorter, and he got very upset when I did limit his screen time.  I knew this was not good, but between dealing with my own fatigue and always feeling like I had to keep him entertained, I continued to allow it.  This went on for about 2 months.  Then, one day, I asked him to draw a picture for his grandfather, who was having surgery.  He has always loved to draw, so I thought he'd enjoy it.  I kept asking him, several times, throughout the day, and he kept saying he would do it later. Twice, he actually sat down and tried to start, but couldn't.  He couldn't think of what to draw nor could he sit still long enough to actually do it! I  finally got him to do it just before bedtime.  That was it. I knew I had to do something.  So, now he has a 30 minute screen time limit per day.  He usually chooses to play on my phone, but he's gotten so used to not having screen time, that some days he doesn't even ask for it. Now he has started Kindergarten, as well, so a lot of his time is occupied, and that, of course, helps.

Owen, my 17 month old has never watched a lot of TV, but after all the reading I have done, I have decided that he doesn't need any.  If Aiden or Hunter are playing a video game, I let him watch, and sometimes I show him short home movie clips of himself on my phone, but that's pretty much it.  At first, he would sometimes point at the TV and cry, but I held my ground, and now he has forgotten that it is an option.

I have also been trying to limit the amount of time I use screens in front of my children. I only watch TV after bedtime anyway, but I try to use my phone and the computer when they are napping/at school, or after they go to bed.  I admit it is challenging, having gotten used to checking my email, Facebook, and Words with Friends several times a day, but I know it won't be long before Aiden will be able to call me out on my hypocrisy! Besides, they are sooo many better things to do with my time during the day!

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