Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Knock Knock!

Who's there?

Oh, sorry. You've probably heard that one.

Time to have an opinion. Where's my gauntlet?

Is TV bad for kids? Of course it is. It destroys a child's ability to communicate and think for themselves. They either waste away to nothing or turn into something bloated and disgusting. They all become mass murdering, chip eating, sugar loving, misogynistic, anti-social brats. And it's all because of TV.

Or is it? In case it's not obvious, I don't actually think TV is bad for kids.

There has been a recommendation made recently that children under two be banned from watching TV and those under four be only allowed one hour a day. The impetus for this move is to combat obesity in our society, which I wholeheartedly agree needs some combating. The reports I have read also suggest that communication skills are significantly reduced and that eye movement may be retarded.

One simple solution would be to make very large widescreen TV's that are voice controlled and powered by treadmill mandatory.

I think that research would find that if a child would sit and read books for several hours a day that the very same conditions mentioned above would likely develop. The effort of turning pages notwithstanding (some of those cardboard pages are pretty thick after all), books are no more interactive than TV. I suppose the act of actually lifting the chosen book off the shelf may be slightly harder than pressing the button on a remote.

Ok, so what about eye movement? Do the eyes get a better work out scanning through lines of text or watching TV? Before we answer that, let's ask if it is actually relevant. After all, kids books are mostly pictures and while they don't move like they do on TV, they are typically smaller than a TV screen. So the range of movement can't be considered greater. But wait, you might say. The kid stares at an unmoving TV screen for hours and a child normally looks at numerous books in the same period of time, forcing their eyes to move far more than when watching TV. I would argue that the contention here is not a comparison of time spent engaged in this particular activity, but rather the specific nature of the act itself, that is, the looking at a book versus the watching of TV and the movement of the eye to cover the information. We will get to the time spent shortly. I think most people would agree that a book is actually not bigger than a TV and the eye can traverse the display space equally effectively for both.

But the time issue is significant, however, maybe not for the above reason. In all the literature I have read, none has suggested that books are better than TV because for every unit of time, your eyes get a better workout with books than with TV. The studies do address the time concerns, but they all focus on the macro movement of the whole body. So while there may be a gut instinct to defend books as a better experience for eye movement, there doesn't seem to be any actual scientific data being offered to support that idea.

Before we jump on the main issue, let's look at the other idea of verbal skills. We are encouraged to read to our kids and speak to them normally, no baby talk, so that they develop a mature, natural way of speaking. Hearing lots of spoken words is the only way a baby can begin to develop speech. Books are full of cool pictures and (to a baby or toddler) otherwise meaningless words. Those words only gain meaning when read aloud to the child. The story comes to life and the significance of those strange markings on the page start to creep into a child's mind.

I am a great believer in reading aloud to your children and I have been doing it for Princess and Little Man since before they were born. Ok, I read Harry Potter for DW while she was pregnant with Princess, then known as Bob. But I also believe it is a valuable thing for the kids to have access to the books themselves. This allows them to go through the book at their own pace, to explore the pictures carefully and to try to retell the story as they remember it. It also has resulted in the ultimate destruction of some "overly loved" books but that is probably worth it to foster the joy of reading.

But...and you knew there was a but coming... I don't think a child learns anything about speech when they are sitting quietly on their own, not hearing the words being read and not trying to say the words themselves. That is not to say that such time is not valuable, but how does it help speech? More often than not the child will soon tire of that activity and find something else to do, all the while learning valuable skills but unless they are hearing words spoken or trying to speak themselves, they are not practicing that particular skill.

Does TV help? Most of kids TV consists of people or characters talking or singing, sometimes themselves and other times with the help of a narrator, but there is always lots of words involved. Most programming targeting young children have specific educational goals, such as learning colours, shapes, words and numbers and even morals. Some even include other languages. Many encourage the children to participate, asking them questions and giving them time to come up with an answer and pretending it is an interactive medium. Whatever you may personally feel about TV, I think you would have to agree that it presents a wide variety of speech learning opportunities for a child.

So on to the next objection. TV may have lots of words and talking but that is not as good as sitting with your child and reading a book, or talking to them about what they are doing and so on. That is absolutely correct and also completely irrelevant. I am certainly not contesting the value of spending personal time with you child, whether it is reading a book, drawing a picture, baking muffins OR watching TV. The more one-on-one time you can spend with your kids the better. But this argument is about comparing the solitary act of watching TV with the solitary act of reading a book for a preliterate child.

So just how much one-one-one time can you spend with your child? Each parent will have their own answer for that but when it comes down to it, you simply have to let them have some time to themselves, and not just for your own sanity. A child needs time away from the stimulation of discussions with a parent to integrate the information. They may play with blocks and they may look at a book, or heaven forbid, watch TV. Invariably we all need some mental downtime to let our "subconscious" play with the ideas we have just been exposed to. Kids are no different. I should point out that kids certainly do need time away from TV for the same reason, but that is a long way from saying they should not be allowed any time in front of the TV in the first place.

And now for the biggie. Kids are fat. Ok, not all kids are fat, but most of them are, so the generalization is fair. Only is it? Well, to be quite honest, it really is fair. A generalization is a description which fits the majority of the subjects. In this case, the majority of kids are overweight. That is not to say that your kids or my kids are overweight, just that for every kid that isn't overweight, they are more kids that are.

My kids are not fat. They are active and vibrant and very, very healthy. They also watch more TV than the new recommendations allow. Actually, they watch more TV than the old recommendations allow. They probably watch too much TV, but I certainly couldn't use their weight as an indicator of that. Actually, there is only my unfounded belief that they watch too much TV. I have no actual evidence of that at all.

Kids need to be active and my kids are like humming birds. But back to the argument in question, how is TV any less physically active than sitting reading a book? It is certainly less active than bouncing on the trampoline or riding the scooters, but the question here is about reading. I'm sure you can agree that in this context, TV and reading use up about the same calories and develop the same gross motor skills, which is to say, none at all.

And here is some more fuel for the fire. Fat kids aren't really the problem. The problem is they grow up to be fat adults, so perhaps the ban should not be on kids, but on adults. I don't see that ever happening, or ANY political party brave enough to even suggest it.

Basically, our kids need to eat healthy foods MOST of the time, get plenty of exercise and gain as much experience of the world they safely can, be that with a parent, playing sports and with friends, reading and yes, even TV. No-one would ever dare to suggest that books should be banned - that would be akin to blasphemy! But the lack of actual evidence and the emotive arguments make TV an easy target. The problem with the suggested ban is not that it is unenforceable, but rather that it will not achieve what it sets out to, and that is help children be healthy and grow into healthy adults. And to make matters worse, it WILL succeed in making excellent, loving and dedicated parents feel guilty when they turn on the TV while they have their morning coffee, just for a moments peace. And God help anyone with more than one kid.


Thought for the Day: Say everything with conviction, especially your retractions.