In defense of TV

"If your child is watching age-appropriate shows as part of a well-balanced and physically active life, can TV really be ...
"If your child is watching age-appropriate shows as part of a well-balanced and physically active life, can TV really be that bad?" ... Amity Dry 

Another day, another study released that makes me feel guilty. This one, published in the journal Pediatrics, focuses on the effect of TV exposure in young children.

I think it’s safe to say we all know too much TV isn’t great for our kids. And I’d guess that most of us make a bit of an effort at least (successfully or otherwise) to limit the amount of time our children spend sitting in front of one.

However, in the new study, researchers looked at the overall time children spent exposed to TV – including when it was on in the background – and found it was much higher than they expected.

"The sheer amount of exposure is startling," said study author Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, assistant professor with the Amsterdam School of Communication Research at the University of Amsterdam.

The study found that, on average, a child in the US is exposed to nearly four hours of background TV per day, an amount that experts say could take a toll on their development. Which is where my guilt kicks in. Because, to be honest, that amount doesn’t seem startling to me at all. In fact, it’s not even mildly surprising. When I counted the hours in a day my kids are exposed to TV, either directly or indirectly, I’d say four hours would be a GOOD day. And definitely not a cold and rainy weekend day.

There are people who don’t watch any TV, and I respect that. But the idea of going without it makes me just as edgy as it would make my children

Look, I know there are people out there who don’t watch any TV, or who limit their kids to 30 minutes a day, and I respect that. But for me, the thought of going without TV makes me just as edgy as it would make my children.

I love TV. I like to get my news from it, be entertained by it, learn things from it and veg out and not think in front of it. Most mornings it will be switched on as soon as we get up, to get the news headlines and watch The Today Show. We've banned kids’ shows on school mornings, but on the weekends there are cartoons. It then goes off for a few hours while we go out or do some activities, but after lunch it will often be back on again in an (often futile) attempt to get my two-year-old to fall asleep in front of it.

It will then go off for a while again, but by late afternoon my son will be tired and looking to relax, so back on it goes. And most likely there it will stay, for the news and then a family-friendly show, until the kids go to bed. Then we’ll have it on, usually in the background, until we go to bed.

Looking at it, that’s a lot of TV. But I don’t think we’re all that unique.


In fact, I would say many mothers with newborns would have it on even more, as they look to TV for company, to escape the monotony and isolation of being home all day. However, according to this study, that’s bad too.

Dr. Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center on Media and Child Health, said that background exposure distracts both children and parents.

"If you look at breastfeeding, for example, it's not just nutrition, but also the intense bonding that is really, really important," Dr Rich said. "If a mum is watching Oprah, she's not looking at her kid."

OK, hang on a minute. Watching Oprah has gotten millions of new mothers through the first few months of endless feeds, nappy changes and lack of adult stimulation. Making us feel guilty about that is taking it too far.

I guess we could be staring at our babies dreamily for their entire 40-60 minute feeds, approximately every two to four hours, but honestly, how much can you look at a person, even one you’re obsessed with? If it wasn’t for TV keeping me awake (and sane) during the many months of night feeds, I would have gone mad. Where is the study that praises TV for saving mothers’ sanity?

I believe in everything in moderation, including TV. If your child is sitting in front of it for eight hours a day, without going outside, reading books, playing sport, doing puzzles, baking cakes, listening to music, or going to school, childcare or playgroup, then yes, it’s going to be detrimental to their development.

But if your child is watching age-appropriate shows as part of a well-balanced and physically active life, can it really be that bad? And if us mums are watching our shows for a while – amongst staring at their lovely faces, engaging with them and providing them with all their needs – how does that hurt?

The study didn’t collect information about what type of programs children were exposed to, although with direct exposure it was found that, unsurprisingly, educational shows can have a positive effect, while violent or sexualized content has been tied to negative outcomes. Which leads me to back to moderation and age-appropriate content; I’m guessing no child has ever had negative outcomes from watching too much Play School. Well, except from feeling slightly wrong watching a topless Noni Hazelhurst in a dramatic role, but that could just be me.

So this is one study I’m going to take with a pinch of salt. I could be wrong, but I think there are other more pressing issues demanding my guilt more.

Do you agree with Amity, or do you think the study got it right? Have your say in the Essential Baby forums or comment below.