Turn On, Tune in, Drop Out, Kids and TV

If some children are born with silver spoons in their mouths, my 16-year-old son Alex was born with a remote in his little red fist. He loved TV from his first viewing of “Sesame Street” to his current favorite, “The Office.”

Alex has an enriching life when he isn’t glued to the TV: travel, museums, friends, books, sports. But he logs too many hours in front of the tube, no doubt about that.

Television has had some positive influences on Alex. He has absorbed an amazing amount of information watching the History and Discovery channels. He is socially and politically aware and credits a lot of his comedic timing to sitcoms.

But there are significant negatives. He expects to be entertained — all the time. He has zero tolerance for boredom and, by golly, he just didn’t get all the fresh air, sunshine and dirt that a kid should get. He would have been better off outside digging for earthworms and feeling their wiggly bodies in his own two fingers rather than watching them wiggle on the Discovery Channel.

“Television replaces experience with the shadow of experience,” says Mark Dyke, PhD, LMSW, an assistant professor at New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. Dyke, who is also a family therapist specializing in children, believes that the real price of excessive TV viewing is “lost opportunities to experience reality through our senses.”

Television in Kid’s Bedrooms

Dyke, who is the father of two teenaged daughters, also believes that excessive TV watching erodes important relational time. He says this is especially true when children have televisions in their bedrooms. “What children need are relationships,” says Dyke.

“They need relationships with their parents, their siblings, their dogs and themselves. Playing a game together, sitting and talking with each other, baking a cake together, these activities build relationships. Television devours the time we might otherwise have spent together.”

Dyke says he and his wife learned this lesson the hard way. “Our girls had TVs in their bedrooms. I hated it. I had no idea what they were really watching and they were off in their own rooms away from us. It was something we really regretted.”

Lost family time is only one of the concerns related to television in children’s rooms. According to a recent article in the New York Times by Tara Parker-Pope , “Children with bedroom TVs have lower test scores and are more likely to have sleep problems.” Additionally, the article states that research indicates having a television in a child’s bedroom is “strongly associated with being overweight and having a higher risk for smoking.”

Intolerance for Boredom

Alex’s intolerance for boredom is apparently a common side effect of heavy TV viewing. According to an article in Scientific American, “Heavy viewers report feeling significantly more anxious and less happy than light viewers do in unstructured situations, such as doing nothing, daydreaming or waiting in line.” The article goes on to say that “…self-described [television] addicts are more easily bored and distracted and have poorer attentional control than nonaddicts.”

Dyke believes that television robs children of the opportunity to be bored, which, in turn, robs them of time for creative thought. “Boredom is like Grand Central Station,” says Dyke. “It occurs when we are not on our way to do something. It is a place where we can sit down and think, ‘What would I like to do?’”

He also believes that television blunts creativity. “Television is like being spoon fed already chewed food. In my practice I don’t see children making up creative scripts for characters in play. Instead they parrot words they’ve heard on television. It looks like play, but it isn’t. Through television we can vicariously live the life of the rich, famous and beautiful. Unfortunately, it robs us of the time to live our own lives.”

TV and Values

“Television reflects the values of big business executives whose only concern is profit,” says Dyke. “Do we really want big business showing our children what is cool?” Television also teaches our children to be consumers. “Kids grow up believing that if they buy enough stuff they don’t need, they will be happy.” Additionally, Dyke is concerned about the effect of television on children’s perception of the world. “Much of the programming on television teaches that the world is a very violent place. It sends the message that the world is bad and getting worse and that violence is cool.”

I recently asked Alex if he thinks he’ll let his own children watch as much TV as he has. His answer was no. “Yeah, I have watched a lot of TV. I’m trying to cut back,” he adds with the seriousness of a two pack-a-day smoker. “I felt like I was wasting too much time because, really, time watching TV is time wasted.”

Categories: Ages & Stages, Suggested