Helen Holmes investigates the effects of electronic media on our children’s wellbeing.
We all – or most of us, at least – do it. Chaos reigns in the house. The children are loud and hyperactive. The breakfast dishes are still in the sink. We reach, slightly guiltily, for the remote control. Click. Suddenly silent, the kids sink onto the sofa. We breathe a sigh of relief and start the washing up.
Ever since one family holiday, a couple of years ago, when it’s conceivable that I may have slightly over-used the Nintendo DS as a means of keeping my then five-year-old occupied, my father has been helpfully clipping articles out of the papers for me.
They make pretty sobering reading: “Are we losing our children to television?” asks the Telegraph. “Are video games bad for your health?” queries the Guardian. The headlines alone are enough to ignite my parental guilt, let alone some of the articles beneath. Apparently, excessive use of television and computer games is making the next generation fat, lazy and socially inept, and it’s the fault of the parents, who are all too keen to take the easy way out and plug their offspring into an electronic babysitter.
In the eyes of some, television is so toxic that it ought to be banned entirely. Aric Sigman, biologist, psychologist, and author of ‘Remotely Controlled: How Television is Damaging Our Lives’, describes television as “the biggest public health threat of our time,” and claims that it’s the medium itself, not the content of the programmes that is dangerous. According to him, watching television, whatever the content, “rots the brain and ruins the body”.
If this is true, then the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to the UK’s parents. A 2011 survey by market researchers Childwise suggested that the nation’s five to 16 year olds watch an average of over two-and-a-half hours of television, and spend an hour and 50 minutes online, each day. And, although there are apocryphal tales of super-wholesome families who never watch TV, I don’t know any – researching this article I asked friends about their children’s viewing habits, and even those with very young children allow at least some TV in the daily schedule.
But, are we really stunting our toddlers’ development by exposing them to The Wiggles, or causing our six year olds to become socially inadequate by paying for Club Penguin membership?
Perhaps surprisingly, the reality seems to be that nobody knows. Although commentators such as Sigman claim to cite scientific evidence to support their opinions, there is actually very little research which tells us what’s really going on when our children leap about in front of the Xbox, or gaze, slack-jawed, at Scooby Doo. Professor David Buckingham, an academic in the field of children and electronic media and author of several books including “Beyond Technology: Children’s Learning in the Age of Digital Culture”, points out that although some studies may show a correlation between, say, watching TV and shyness in children, they don’t demonstrate causality – they don’t prove whether watching TV makes children become less sociable, or whether it is simply that less sociable children are inclined to watch more TV.
Guidelines are sometimes issued for children’s viewing time – for example, in 2010 the American Academy of Paediatrics recommended that parents limit combined screen time from television, DVDs, computers, and video games to two hours per day for preschool age children. But such guidelines are actually arbitrary – based on guesswork rather than research. According to Buckingham, studies in the area are often over-simplified, “What is a one-year-old doing when it watches television, and how does this compare to how other ages watch television? These sorts of questions get lost, and yet they are fundamental to any decent research.”
The content of the programmes being watched or games being played doesn’t seem to have been considered, either. Amongst the parents that I spoke to there was universal acclaim for CBBC programmes like Deadly 60, and Horrible Histories and, contrary to Sigman’s ‘it’s the medium not the message’ stance, it seems likely to me that half an hour spent in front of one of these programmes is a very different experience for a child from half an hour spent watching something that’s obviously inappropriate like, say, EastEnders.
Without any hard science to back up their opinions, members of the anti-TV lobby often hark back to a simpler time, when TV wasn’t available 24 hours a day, mothers were predominantly of the stay-at-home variety, and children ran wild in the fields and woods. This nostalgic view not only lumps several different social changes together in a potentially unhelpful way, but it also plays on the insecurities of adults who are parenting in a time which is not, however much the more conservative amongst us might wish it were, the 1950s.
When I was at primary school, in the late 70s and early 80s, the broadcasting of children’s TV was limited to a few hours a day and the only computer game we had was Snoopy Tennis, with a tiny LCD screen. My family didn’t get our first VHS video recorder until I was into my teens. When I explain this to my seven year old he looks baffled and asks whether we had electricity, at which point I ban him from the computer for a week for cheekiness, but I digress.
So, what did I do with all that glorious telly-free time? Did I skip through meadows, learning about nature, or spend oodles of cosy afternoons in the loving bosom of my family? No. Mostly I moaned that I was bored, and then shut myself in my room and buried my nose in an Enid Blyton book – surely the approximate cultural equivalent of watching continuous Chuggington. What I was reading was hardly highbrow, but because I was reading, rather than doing something supposedly less edifying like watching TV, my parents just let me get on with it.
Highbrow or not, all that reading probably did equip me reasonably well to write for a living later on. But if our own children become writers, they will be dealing with social media and blogging; if they become designers, a computer will be their main tool. Whatever they end up doing, they’ll be doing it amongst a mass of media influences. Buckingham says, “We need to look at children’s consumption in the round, in relation to broader changes in the economy and in family life, without succumbing to nostalgia for a mythical golden age. Simple cause-and-effect explanations do not do justice to the complexity of the issues.”
The issues are complex, and, though watching hours on end of telly might seem to make children less sociable, banning it entirely can also cause social difficulties. As a child, I was allowed to watch BBC children’s programmes (though NOT Grange Hill, of course), but not commercial TV. Consequently, as a six year old, I couldn’t join in when the break-time conversation turned to Fraggle Rock, which was shown on banned ITV.
It was a minor problem for me, but who, then or now, would want to be the kid in the playground who doesn’t watch TV at all? It’s a pretty tough social position to impose on a child. Children, and adults, have a need to feel culturally connected to our peers, and the entertainment that we consume through our TVs, laptops and phones facilitates this psychologically important sense of being a part of our own civilisation.
It’s also important that children learn to monitor and decipher the messages that they will inevitably eventually encounter through the media, no matter how much we try to shield them. “Media literacy,” says Buckingham, “both at home and in schools, offers an important means of empowering children and parents to handle the demands and choices that they increasingly face.”
So, in the face of no empirical evidence to prove it damaging, should we just chill out and stop bothering to police our children’s viewing and gaming habits? Well, I can spot the glazed expression of a child who’s been staring at a screen for too long, as accurately as the next parent, and I’m guessing that a little restraint is sensible, for the child’s sake. Not to mention the fact that restricting access to TV and computer games can be an incredibly useful tool.
If children see television as a treat, rather than as a constant backdrop, then you can use it when you really need it. If your child’s driving you crazy while you’re trying to cook dinner and simultaneously conduct a work conversation on the phone, 20 minutes of TV might provide an essential breather. If you need to keep children quiet on a long train journey you can let them watch a DVD. My son does have TV and computer time each day – but it’s short enough that he still sees it as a bonus when he’s allowed a little bit extra. The electronic babysitter is only effective when it’s used relatively sparingly.
But how do I know whether I’m getting it right? I don’t. I thought, when I set out to write this article, that by the end I’d have a neat little box, filled with guidelines for parents on how much TV to administer, and when. I hoped that I’d be able to inform my own parenting strategies with a greater insight into the relative benefits and detriments of games consoles versus time on the internet or television.
The truth is, I can’t. I’m just going to have to carry on balancing my son’s desire to watch TV and play games and my own occasional need to get things done, with a healthy dollop of common sense and hope for the best. But at least, having looked into the science behind their assertions, I won’t be letting the people who seem to wish that the entire modern world would just go away make me feel quite so guilty.