Time to turn off?

It’s 7am and pandemonium reigns in the Hunter household.
Three-month old Zoë is bawling for her bottle while
two-year-old Eddie charges half naked through the house, loudly
refusing to sit down, eat his breakfast and get ready for nursery.
Dad is in hot pursuit, juggling Zoë and her bottle in one arm
and various items of Eddie’s clothing in the other.

Then, with a simple flick of the TV remote, calm is

“Scooby Doo!” cries Eddie delightedly as he settles quietly down
on the sofa. Minutes later, Zoë is fed, Eddie is dressed and
dad is thanking the heavens for television.

It is a scene that is being repeated in families with small
children up and down the country. The use of TV as an all-in-one
entertainment centre, child pacifier and occasional babysitter has
become almost ubiquitous. According to research carried out last
year for children’s TV company Pepper’s Ghost more than
three-quarters of pre-school children watch two or more hours of TV
per day. More than a third of children under four have a television
in their bedroom.

But while exhausted parents savour the respite, concern is
mounting that the levels of TV being watched by children may be
damaging their mental development and physical health.

Research recently published in the US journal Pediatrics, found
that each hour of daily TV results in a 10 per cent increase in a
toddler’s risk of developing attention-deficit/hyperactivity
disorder (ADHD) by the age of seven. The researchers conclude that
children over the age of two should be limited to no more than two
hours of TV a day. Children under two should watch no TV at

This adds to existing evidence linking children’s TV
watching to aggressive behaviour, bullying, low literacy levels and
obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics has become so concerned
about the effect of TV on children that it has issued strict
guidelines on how much TV children should be allowed to watch (see

However, like much of the evidence on children and TV, this
guidance is based on research into children watching US television.
How it relates to the UK, with its tradition of age-specific
educational programmes and public service broadcasting, is

“In the UK we are incredibly lucky with the quality of some of
the children’s programmes that are produced,” says Liz
Attenborough, manager of the National Literary Trust’s Talk
to Your Baby campaign. “One of the key things is age-appropriate TV
watching and the UK is much more geared towards that than the

In fact, according to the NLT’s own review of published
research, carefully planned TV watching can actually aid the
language development of children aged two to five.

“When we look for reasons for the increasing problems that
children are having in learning language, then it’s very easy
to say ‘it’s all down to TV’,” says Attenborough.
“But that’s not really very helpful to parents because TV is
not going to go away. What is important is that parents learn how
they can use TV to help their children’s development rather
than hinder it.”

This means parents watching TV together with their children and
then talking about what they have just seen. Videos can be
particularly useful as children tend to want to watch their
favourites over and over again. The consequent repetition of words
and phrases makes it easier for the child to learn language

Above all, the NLT’s research shows that it is important
for younger children to watch programmes that are specifically
designed for their age group. This, of course, can be extremely
difficult in a family with children of different ages.

“What usually happens is that the older children take control of
the remote and the younger children watch whatever they watch,”
says Attenborough. “Parents should be aware of this and try to
ensure everyone gets their turn. You should not have to sit through
EastEnders if you are only two.”

Unfortunately, a report published last year by the Broadcasting
Standards Commission and Independent Television Commission suggests
that sitting through EastEnders – which topped audience
figures for four to 15 year olds in 2002 – is exactly what a lot of
children are doing. Of the programmes with the top 10 viewing
figures for 2002, only one – the film Bug’s Life – was
specifically made for children. And with four World Cup football
matches making the children’s top 10, it appears that
children’s viewing preferences are all too often overruled by
their parents.

According to the National Family and Parenting Institute, most
parents are aware that their children should not be allowed to
vegetate in front of the TV every night. However, with parents
often both working and increasingly reluctant to allow their
children to play unsupervised outside, there is often neither the
time nor energy to arrange suitable alternatives to TV.

For older children this is unlikely to be too harmful unless the
TV is allowed to replace more healthy activities, says Dr Harvey
Marcovitch, a former Oxford paediatrician and now spokesman for the
Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

“If the child is also reading, exercising and playing with other
children then a little TV is not going to hurt,” he says “But if
the TV is replacing those activities then that could be a

Children under the age of two, however, do need to be protected
from all but the most child-friendly of programmes, says Dr

“If you watch children’s TV, most of it is cartoons and
each image lasts on the screen for only a matter of seconds.
Compare that with a young child at play who will do things very
slowly and repetitively. That’s the way they take in
information and learn. So TV can be very bewildering for young
minds. It can lead to a heightened sensation and, for some, that
can lead to problems in later life.”

In contrast, programmes such as the Teletubbies, which are
designed specifically for very young children, do not follow the
constant stimulation template and consequently are much less likely
to be harmful, says Dr Marcovitch.

“Teletubbies is very different. There is constant repetition and
it is very carefully planned along established psychological

It is this tailoring of TV viewing towards the age-specific
needs of the child that is the key to safe viewing, believes Dr

“It’s wrong to say that all TV is harmful to children. It
depends on what they watch, how they watch it and who they watch it

TV guide for parents

  • Limit children’s total TV time to one to two hours of
    quality programming per day.
  • Remove TVs from children’s bedrooms.
  • Discourage TV for children younger than two years, and
    encourage more interactive activities such as talking, playing,
    singing, and reading together.
  • Monitor the shows children and adolescents are viewing.
  • View television programmes along with children and discuss the
  • Use the video recorder to show or record high-quality,
    educational programming for children.
  • Encourage alternative entertainment for children, including
    reading and creative play.

Adapted from American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001


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