This is a new theme I am going to revisit on occasion, focusing on some of the things we parents do (and maybe even get tricked into doing) that make the act of parenting and relating to our children considerably more difficult. I don’t want this to feel chastising, but I do want to be honest about these things because I think there is a lot of nonsense with which the majority of parents deal that could easily be avoided — if only they knew…
I am going to start with the behemoth double-agent. Not only is it almost everyone’s best friend and welcome in every room of the house, it’s also one of parents’ worst (but most tolerated) enemies — it’s that mainstay of American culture and entertainment — TV. (Gasp!) I know — for those of you who haven’t previously decided to do without the so-called “idiot box”, the idea of its being your worst enemy is — well, a joke. And for those of you who use its services regularly to keep your kid(s) company while you whittle away at the current to-do list, the same idea is even comparable to “fightin’ words”. And to all of you, I respectfully say: “I double-dog dare you to find out more about what TV is doing to your children.” To the rest of you, who might have an inkling that TV isn’t the best thing in the world for your children, but also don’t think of it as much of a negative influence on your relationship with your kids, or on their futures, please read on.
Fortunately for all of us, (TaDuummm!) there has been a ton of research done on the subject of how TV effects humans, and our children in particular. There has been research on everything from how it influences our ideas about life, the world in which we live, and the other people with whom we live, to how TV effects our sleep, our eating habits, our brain development, and our self-image. And it doesn’t take long when looking at the results of such research to figure out — TV is effecting us, and it ain’t good.
(P.S. The hypertext links above represent only the first set of water molecules on “the tip of the iceberg”. So have at it. If you are interested, there is a mountain of information to be had.)
Although I do believe that all of the above areas can and do negatively influence our relationships with our kids, I think there are three things about the nature of television itself that create the most issues for parents:
First, as you can easily find out above, TV messes with our bodies. (CRASH!) Take sleep patterns, for example, TV a/effects how we rest — whether it is lulling us into a lower brain activity state than sleep, or disrupting normal neurotransmitter cycles that tell our bodies when to go to sleep and how deeply to go into sleep. That is asking for trouble – emotionally, psychologically, and physically. The effects can show up immediately following any period of TV watching — like when your kid is miffed and frumpy from the instant you turn off the TV, even when he isn’t bothered because you turned it off. The effects may last several hours, when he is restless, excruciatingly bored, incapable of exerting the energy to entertain himself, and irritated (as though from lack of sleep or just waking). And if he is watching TV in too close of a proximity to bedtime, it can make it nearly impossible for his body and mind to relax enough to enter sleep easily (because the frequency of TV light tricks the brain into thinking it is day, and time to secrete brain chemicals for maintaining alertness, etc., rather than time to secrete sleep-inducing ones). Regular disruption of proper sleep can have seriously debilitating effects that worsen during the course of a lifetime and culminate in early death. And all of those effects make relating with, and actually “parenting” our children more difficult. Think of it this way, if you are consistently not getting enough of the right kind of rest, what are you like? Now imagine that feeling in a little kid body, with hormones whizzing around like mad, and emotional reactions typically feeling stronger, and coping skills almost unknown (and certainly unpracticed).
Secondly, TV gets in the way of relating with our kids by literally being in the way — distracting our kids from being with us at all, even when we are sitting right next to them. (Wah-BLAM!) Perhaps you’ve experienced this: you walk into the room where your child is happily lost in the world of a TV show, and you begin to do everything you can think of, short of blowing your own head off, to get the kid’s attention, only to find that you will be forced to walk over and stand in front of the TV or turn it off completely if you want her to hear anything that you are saying. Most adults can share a TV experience, talk about it, and still feel as though they are watching together. Kids have such a small distinction (if any) between fantasy and reality that they almost disappear into the TV experience, and they damn sure don’t want to interact with you. This can be seen as an advantage if you want your child to be distracted from you (e.g. so you can focus on that to-do list). However, TV is incapable of giving our children the kind of interaction they need for proper development. And the trouble is two-fold, because not only is she not interacting with you (i.e. not bonding with, nor learning from you as she was designed to do until at least age 7), she is also distracted from interacting with the real world. She isn’t getting to fully, deeply explore life, and the mental map she is making of existence is thus incomplete and distorted. And both of these “distractions” will negatively a/effect the relationship you share.
Finally, and this is the biggy, TV is a crappy role model. (POW!) Just watch some of the shows kids watch and you’ll see what I mean. Actually, get a piece of paper and divide it into two columns. On one side, make a list of all the things you see the TV characters doing that you want your child(ren) to do, and on the other, make a list of all the actions you see that you don’t want your child(ren) to do. If you’re being honest with yourself (and you aren’t a psychopath) you’ll notice that the “don’t” list gets several times longer than the “do” list, and in record time. For some reason, and with very few exceptions, TV shows and movies (especially for kids) model the absolute worst choices, the most painful reactions, the least logical, ethical, or empathetic responses, and the least wholesome attitudes possible. Pick any show, even the most innocuous (with the notable exception of the thimbleful of movies like My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo), and you’ll see one or more of the following: kids making poor choices; kids acting in ways that are painful to themselves and others; kids and parents mistreating and mistrusting each other; parents not believing kids; parents being too busy to care for or connect with the kids; kids having to “do it on their own”; kids lying; kids doing something that they or others will regret; and then in the very final moments, a rapid turn around and “closure” that neither explains the previous poor choices, nor adequately involves reconciliation, nor communicates any “message” about more empathetic choices with enough vehemence to outweigh the rest of the show’s modeling. So 90% of any kids’ show is teaching (i.e. modeling) really troublesome actions and responses, on the part of the kids in the show in particular, and without nearly enough of the opposite to counter-balance those, thus further distorting our children’s understanding of how the world works, and how they should act in relation to the world.
All three of these dysfunctions of television make parenting our children exponentially more difficult. And even if it buys us some time to do things that are really important to us (and even to our family), one must consider whether, in the end, what TV allows us to do is worth what TV does. Is having a moment to do some project or allowing our kids some time to “veg out” (with TV) worth what that does to how they see and respond to the world and themselves. We don’t really want the “idiot box” to be in charge of that. Do we?
(Deee de-dee de-dee… Deee de-dee de-dee…) This just in!
It’s now 2013, and I just wanted to add another quick point that has come to my attention in the couple years since I wrote this post, one that I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about in research on TV in the future. That is, how the experience of TV triggers our mirror neurons. As I now understand it, we humans have a subset of the motor neurons that fire when we perform any action that also fire when we see, hear, or imagine that/those action/s. So, when you see someone pick up an apple and lift it toward her lips and open her mouth and begin to take bites — and even now just in reading my description of it — your mirror neurons fire and your brain does a quick automatic simulation of apple-eating. This happens every single time we experience or witness actions taking place. Therefore, when we and our kids watch TV, our brains are actually experiencing every action we see enacted. Someone on the TV gets mad: our brains get mad; someone yells — our brains yell and get yelled at; someone punches another — our brains punch and get punched; someone kills someone else — well, you get the point…
Thank you for your attention, we now return you to your normal programming.
This episode of “Things that make you go, ‘D’OH!’” has been brought to you by Parents for Easier Parenting.
P.S. For a TV-alternative during those desperate moments when you need your child to be occupied (e.g. to feed yourself), you can use your computer to play audio (and in some cases, visual) books. The audio ones actually feed your child’s brain by using his imagination. Story Nory is a fabulous, free service for this. One More Story is a stellar audio-visual one, but you have to buy a membership.