Children and media: overhyped or underestimated?

NS February 2nd, 2010

Is a lot of ‘screen time’ for kids really as horrific as people like to make out? Are children rotting their brains, giving themselves virtual lobotomies, by watching television, playing video games, working on computers and using hand-held music devices/e-readers/mobile phones? A recent report showed that children in the US spend nearly eight hours per day consuming media — nearly as long as the average adult spends at work. I’m sure statistics are similar for children in the UK. This has really freaked some people out. It used to freak me out. I felt (and still feel) guilty for the amount of time The Noble Child spends staring at a screen. But increasingly, I’m asking myself why children consuming media is considered such an atrocity and why we are so panicked about it.

Full disclosure: my three-year-old watches a couple hours of television a day. She knows how to play simple games aimed at pre-schoolers on the computer. She can take photos on our digital camera. She instinctively knew how to use an iPhone when first exposed to one, with little explanation or demonstration. She could double-click and click-and-drag by the time she was two years old. The girl is tech-savvy. But so are her parents. My husband’s career is in computers. We are both active members of online communities; he on his sports forums and I with the blogosphere and Twitter. We both have iPhones. We both like to watch films and a few select TV shows. We stream videos. We take photos and upload them. We read a lot of our news on the computer screen, not from a newspaper spread over the breakfast table (though I do buy a broadsheet a couple times a week — nothing beats the weekend papers in bed). We’re fully linked in, wired up and logged on. So why wouldn’t our daughter (and eventually our son, too) be?

If that’s ALL she did then, yes, it would undoubtedly be unhealthy. If she lacked imagination, social interaction, literacy and communication skills or physical energy then, yes, I would be concerned. But she doesn’t. She is unimaginably sociable, friendly, outgoing, polite, empathetic and energetic. She can watch Finding Nemo contentedly but then jump up (sometimes in the middle of it) and want to play Bears or Hot Lava or Horsey Ride. She’s plainly thriving and developing at a normal pace. So the more I hear and read about the hysteria and see chests being beaten and hair being torn out by guilt-inflicted parents and drama-loving media sources, the more I think we’re blowing this all out of proportion. We all know that “studies say” and “experts suggest” that children have limited screen time, but what is the impetus for all these studies being conducted? Why the money, time and resources spent on finding out whether something that is unavoidably a part of our lives, and our kids’ lives, should be kept away from them?

The first response is to say they are being done for legitimate scientific and social purposes, to ensure that consuming all this new media will not have detrimental effects on us (which is a legitimate concern, certainly), but I have to wonder if at least some of this concern stems from the fact that advances in technology and our lifestyles have changed so rapidly in the last 10-20 years, leaving us little time to grow accustomed to it gradually, that our heads are left spinning, unsure how to process all of the information, choices and consequences. I also wonder if it’s something every generation does, where those who were once young and hip all of a sudden realise that they have grown older and a new modernity has set in, one which vastly influences the way they, and particularly their children, live their lives and spend their time. Often, it is our children who are least scared of these changes and we are the ones left scratching our heads and muttering phrases like “Back in my day…” while fixing whatever newfangled invention is ‘taking over the youth’ with a suspicious stare.

Rock music used to be considered the devil incarnate. Then it was films and TV. Then it was rap music and racy ads. Then it was video games. Now it’s mobile phones and computers. Different decade, same ol’ worries. Old/familiar = good, virtuous; Young/new = scary, unknown.

I saw a poll recently (can’t remember where or I’d link) where parents were asked how much TV their kids actually watched versus how much they told other people their kids watched and the discrepancies were not marginal. More than three-quarters said they felt their children watched too much television but, when asked, most halved that time. So are kids consuming too much media or are we just making each other feel guilty about it by under-reporting and hiding it because we don’t fully understand it? Is this just one more way in which parents are blamed for not being perfect, or are the ‘experts’ right to caution us about the effects of the Age of Tech?

I haven’t fully made up my mind yet. I vacillate between beating myself up and trying to curtail media usage to embracing it and reminding myself that my children are well-rounded, loved and properly cared for, regardless of ‘screen time.’ After all, you wouldn’t be reading this post if it wasn’t for CBeebies. I get time to ponder and write (which makes me a better person and mother) and my children learn yoga poses from cute little animated figures, set to soothing music and chattering laughter.  Is that really so bad?

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43 Responses to “Children and media: overhyped or underestimated?”

  1. I honestly don’t know what the fuss is all about.
    I watched lots of TV when I was little (I can talk at length about the Red Hand Gang, Dangermouse and Count Duckula) so I really don’t think it’s a new thing.
    There are some fabulous things my son has discovered on TV lately: Gastronauts which is all about food and cooking and culture; Horrible Histories which makes history fun and interesting and even Tracy Beaker which has really made his stop and think about others.
    And much as I can’t bear her voice, Dora has taught her to count to 10 in Spanish!

    NS Reply:

    @Tara@Sticky Fingers, Yeah, I’m not a big fan of Dora’s grating voice either but at least she’s somewhat educational and not a Bratz doll, that’s what I tell myself as I grit my teeth.

    Liz Reply:

    @NS, we watched Dora once…had to turn it off at the point where it repeated what they were going to do about 20 times! (I’m not even kidding!), surely kids pick things up quicker than that?

  2. Expat Mum says:

    We have to accept that most of life is done with technology now. I am constantly being told (by 14 year old son) how computer games actually improve reflexes and all this other good stuff. He even prints out the reports to prove his point. The 6 year old knows more about our computer than I do – and I think that’s great. He learns it at school.
    The only thing I keep an eye on is the teen who would literally stay in his room all day and play video games. He is often playing them online with friends but the physical isolation isn’t good and I limit his time.

    NS Reply:

    @Expat Mum, Ha! Leave it to a teen to print out reports on why he should be playing video games. Bless ‘im.

  3. I feel guilty about the amount of television my son watches, and I’m sure people are staring at me like I’m a bad parent when my 3.5 yr old is playing memory games on my iPhone when we’re out in public. But ya know what? It keeps him quiet! And engaged! And seriously, how bad can it be for him to be playing a memory/matching game on a screen? What’s the problem?

    I also feel my kids are well rounded – but sometimes, yes, they do watch television, and sometimes it’s because I need Nanny Dora to keep their attention while I get something done. So freaking sue me. My guardians did a WHOLE LOT WORSE to me than that, and here I am (not that I think the last generation of parents should be used as a measuring stick because they certainly did some decidedly stupid things – like embracing formula.)

    My answer is *shoulder shrug*

    NS Reply:

    @TheFeministBreeder, I often give my phone to my daughter so she can play games while we’re waiting in lines or doctor’s offices, etc.. Works like a charm!

  4. Nova says:

    I completely agree with you.
    The only reason I feel guilty about the amount of television my children watch/time the boys spend on the playstation is because of the media hype.
    My children are intelligent, have reading ages way above their chronological ages, do lots of sport etc..
    I suppose there are parents out there that allow their children to vegetate, growing fatter and more unfit….
    It’s hard enough being a parent isn’t it without all these extra ‘things’ we now have to police, I see that my children, like yours, are going to be prepared for the world that they’ll most likely be going to work in one day.
    I really enjoyed your post, thought provoking…thanks.

    NS Reply:

    @Nova, You’re right, the guilt mainly comes from the hype. But we all know deep down whether it’s *really* a problem or not, I think.

  5. It’s a tough one for me at the moment. Because Kai has some speech delay and behavioural difficulties and the temptation is to think of WHYS and blame it on something I have done wrong.

    He does watch TV, not a lot, maybe 1-2 hours a day? Usually first thing and just before tea. But he loves it and gets so much pleasure from watching his favourite shows, and it is a welcome respite to an otherwise demanding day and gives me a much needed rest, especially at the end of the day. And, unless I’m having a REALLY insecure day, my common sense tells me that the odd hour of television is not responsible for any problems. Ironically, one of the bits of advice I’ve been given is to let him watch MORE! as a way of exposing him to lots of speech and sounds!

    Like you say, it’s not like it’s the only thing he does with days busy with lots of other activities. And he is growing up in a very media-orientated world. I think pretending that media doesn’t exist and trying to ‘protect’ our children from it may be a little naive. The reality is it’s going to be a huge part of their lives.

    Saying that, I respect people that want to exercise caution in this regard and of course part of our jobs as good parents in terms of using media is teaching our children about balance and monitoring appropriate usage etc. For some parents that will mean choosing to wait to expose their children to tv shows, computer games etc and that’s fair enough.

    Personally my view is that letting Kai watch TV, become familiar computers and teaching him that these things then GO OFF and we go outside and play is perhaps just a valid a lesson as forbidding it altogether.

    Interesting post NS, well done x

    NS Reply:

    @Josie @Sleep is for the Weak, A break is definitely needed sometimes to recharge and regroup, which is what I remind myself of when I start feeling guilty for putting the TV on while I drink a cup of tea and do a bit of blogging. If I never got any time to myself during the day I’d be a horrible, resentful mother, I know it. You make a good point about respecting the people who choose not to expose their children to media, I definitely respect their decision and hope no one took my post as a criticism of those who go down that road.

  6. “If that’s ALL she did then, yes, it would undoubtedly be unhealthy”

    And that I think is the key.

    Mine has habits a lot like yours, plus he spends a good hour or so everyday doing “school” online on top of that(we home educate). Taken in isolation that could cause some to hissy fit…but then the above details of his “screen time” tells you nothing about all the the hours spent every single day doing team sport, individual sport, free play with friends, slinking off with a hammer to make a wooden man out of bits of left over sawn off planks and decorating my kitchen with paint speckles in the name of “art”.

    Plus I like telly. I left the Uk at 21 and went to live in Thailand, which after some years was followed by Italy. For 14 years I was a telly free zone. Right up until Sky Italia became affordable. I didn’t turn to cultural pursuits in those “dry” years. Although copious amounts of beer and hanging off poles in Pat Pong did feature heavily as I spent most of my free time out on the razzle for a lack of any interesting entertainment at home.

    There is a whiff of Puritanism about all the angst over how we choose to entertain ourselves and our children. Personally I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than go back to the days where the highlight of the week was a game of charades in the front room with the whole family. It’s bad enough at Christmas.

    NS Reply:

    @Sarah in Italy, Hahaha! So true about charades at Christmas.

  7. TheMadHouse says:

    I am with you on this one. Early on in the minimads life, I was dead set against TV and screen time of any sort, but they are growing up in a atechnological age. We do not want to hinder them, by banning all screen time, which would be totally hypocrital on our part as they play a big part in our lifes.

    The winter is worse for me, in the summer the boys are out all hours enjoying the good weather, but the boys dont like the cold, so the wii, PC and TV does get a look in, but that said, so does the marble run, books and all sorts of other stuff too.

    I guess it is all things in moderation for me.

    NS Reply:

    @TheMadHouse, The winter definitely means more TV here. In the summer we’re out in the garden, going to the park, having picnics, etc.. until we fall over with exhaustion but in the winter? Not so much.

  8. Mistress of Boogie says:

    I’m undecided about TV for kids. On the one hand, I think that it is, essentially, fine and that it’s how you watch it that matters. I often watch with Boogie (my four year old) and we chat about the stuff we’re watching and it can be quite interesting seeing yet another way in which her little mind processes the information it’s being given. We also have our ‘favorites’, so settling down for a bit of Scooby Doo becomes a lovely time for the two of us to spend some quality cuddling-up-on-the-sofa-time, time which, without TV, quickly becomes let’s-see-how-high-I-can-jump-before-landing-on-mummy time. So that’s all good. However, if you’re leaving your kid in front of it eight hours a day so you don’t have to interact with them, clearly that’s a different thing altogether – but let’s face it, TV is not exactly the primary problem there.

    On the other hand, I read somewhere (in Superfreakonomics I think) that the timeframe in which TV was progressively rolled out in the U.S. correlates exactly to spikes in the crime rates of the various states which occured as those kids first exposed to TV came of age…there’s no definitive evidence that there’s a causal relationship between the two, but it makes you think nonethless (or should that be ‘makes you think yikes!’). Also, as I understand it, the problem with TV is thought to be a question of brain states; passively watching TV causes the brain to go into (and I really am just trying to remember this so I may be using the wrong word) an alpha state which is basically the brain cruising on sleep mode and too much of this is bad for higher learning development etc. Again, I’m struggling to access this info in my own brain, but I think computer games are different in that there is active involvement in playing, so there’s no alpha state involved.

    It’s a tricky one, but as with so many things, probably just an issue of balance.

    NS Reply:

    @Mistress of Boogie, Was it the same study that linked women’s move out of the home and into the workplace with rises in crime and behavioural problems? ;-p I’d never heard that, will have to look it up. But I still have to wonder if the studies are looking for one singular thing to blame society’s ills on and TV or women going back to work are just easy targets. It’s way more complicated and bigger than that.

    Mistress of Boogie Reply:

    @NS, No, the study wasn’t trying to blame anything on anyone, but simply noted that there was a factual correlation between the dates of the introduction of television transmission and spiking crime rates how ever many years later as those kids who were the first to experience TV came of age; as I said, the authors noted that they had no evidence of any direct causal link between the two. If you haven’t read Freakonomics or Superfreakonomics I can heartily recommend them – they’re incredibly interesting, especially when you consider they’re books about economics! The other similar correlation noted in the first of the two books (Freakonomics) was that following Roe v. Wade: 18 years or so after that case, crime rates decreased dramatically throughout the U.S. – leading to their theory that those babies most likely to grow up to lead a life of crime – those from deprived backgrounds etc – simply hadn’t been born because of the legalisation of abortion. From memory (and yes, I am wishing I could find my copy!), the authors posited that whatever your moral stand on abortion, it did seem to show that perhaps the best people to decide whether or not they would be able to raise children well (given their circumstances etc at the time of pregnancy) were the prospective mothers of those children. Good stuff.

    NS Reply:

    @Mistress of Boogie, They are both books I’ve been meaning to read, will have to try to move them up the ‘to read’ list! Thanks for the recommendations.

  9. Liz says:

    Hiya NS,

    Well, we just got out the old SNES, hooked it up to the tiny TV and gave NP (2 1/2) the controller. She loved it and wanted to keep trying all the different games. She also loves Spongebob Squarepants on the XBOX 360. She’s not very good at controlling, but I believe that having a go is better than living in isolation from the rest of the world! We don’t have a Wii, but I can see how that would also be fun for her. She loves Waybuloo, and knows all the names of the characters. She can sing Bob the Builder all by herself. We live in an age of connectivity, it seems ridiculous to cut her off.

    As long as we’re aware of what she’s doing and demonstrating good practices to her, why should we not let her join in on the things we do ourselves? She obviously will be taught the context of everything. It’s lucky really that we are computer savvy, that we can understand the things she might find of interest in the coming years. What I think is really damaging to kids is being exposed to these technologies without proper explanation or contextualisation, or God-Forbid! Interaction and involvement by the parents.

    NS Reply:

    @Liz, Spot on, I agree.

  10. Gappy says:

    I have found this post and the comments it’s generated really reassuring.

    I feel terribly guilty about the amount of screen time I allow my children, and it’s often a source of conflict as they love telly and computers, but I try to impose at least some restrictions.

    It’s also a source of conflict with my ex partner who allows no sugar and hardly any television, and who thinks I am a ‘bad mother’ for allowing the children both those things.

    I once heard a psychologist on the radio saying that no child under three should be allowed to watch television, as it was damaging to their growing brains – but to be honest his attitude made me feel really cross. I bet he’s never had to look after small children on his own day in day out, and I bet if he had, he’d be grovellingly grateful for CBeebies too!

    NS Reply:

    @Gappy, If it makes you feel better about the sugar, look at my friend Jen (say hi Jen!) — her parents were strict about sugar and she now has an incurable sweet tooth. I’ve seen the woman open sugar packets and just pour them in her mouth, for goodness sake. ;) So tell your ex that you’re just teaching moderation and to shove it, or he will be paying expensive dental bills later in their lives, when he can’t control how much sugar they’re eating.

    jen Reply:


    hi jen :)

    sigh – it’s true, i’m incorrigible.

    to my parents creidt, however, my brother and sister are models of restraint around sugar. my sister just sent me her leftover halloween candy!!!

  11. Thank-you NS love the post, it says everything I’d want to say about this question and like Gappy it reassures me I’m not the only one who feels a little guilty sometimes. I’ve gone through the worries, researched it until I can read no more. I’ve decided I’m not going to worry anymore. I will let my children watch TV but like most mums I will try keep a balance between that and other activities.

    NS Reply:

    @Kez @heathworld, I’m glad you are reassured. I am too! I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction I’d get from this post and imagined some might recoil in horror at my laissez faire attitude towards kids and media consumption. Glad to know I’m not a freak!

  12. Nota Bene says:

    Naturally it’s about balance…although offspring’s idea of balance may not be the same as the parents…the boy manages to text, MSN and do his homework successfully…quite how I don’t know…and in the future the screen will be even more present than it is now, so restricting too much is like holding back the waves….

    NS Reply:

    @Nota Bene, See, I would call that multi-tasking. A good trait for a man to have! :)

  13. I think it depends on the child which is why I’m also suspicious of a lot of these rather black and white studies. It depends what they watch, for how many hours at a time and if they do something else. Ours probably watch about 1.5 hours day, including time on laptops, iPhones and so on. I’m a bit slacker about how much time dudelet (6yo) spends on the GameCube because his current focus is Zelda the Wind Waker and that involves an immense ammout of reading.

    I saw some squib about how Davina bloody McCall only lets her kids watch half an hour day and all I could think was “army of nannies”. If we didn’t have Cbeebies and CBBC, we’d go completely insane. Plus we’d never get any housework done or shower.

  14. P.S. Admittedly they watch rather more at weekends!

    NS Reply:

    @Dad Who Writes, Yep, same here. They tend to watch more on weekend mornings while TNH and I are trying to catch up on sleep. Without sleep we’d be miserable and snapping at them so I think a couple hours of TV is preferable to shouting at them. More power to those who don’t need it but I need those mini-breaks and my sleep.

  15. Reluctant Blogger says:

    I think these studies and their recommendations are always worth reading, if only to poo-poo them. I always read them but I rarely change what I am doing although occasionally I might slightly. Most of us here are responsible parents who want to do the best job that we can.

    I think this is similar to the food thing – as long as there is variety, everything is OK in reasonable moderation. What you determine as reasonable is up to you and your parenting style and what you as a family do.

    My own personal view is that TV and computer stuff, unless used to excess (and to my mind 8 hours a day would be excess!) are neither positive nor negative or rather have aspects of both.

    I have four children (aged between 8 and 21) and they all use computers and occasionally watch TV. I do have a limit – just because it saves arguments and is clear for everyone – one hour of anything like that per person (and watching someone else on the Playstation counts as part of their hour!) but they can choose how they divide it up. I think that is reasonable given they are at school all day, swim training most evenings and there is homework, book reading and other things to be done. But that is mostly because we are not a TV household – we have one but it is off unless someone elects to watch something in particular, and in general the TV only goes on at 9pm when I choose to watch something. They are much keener on using their hour on computer stuff. But they spend a lot of time reading and making noise and mess!

    I didn’t let my children watch TV when they were little but that is again just because I don’t like the TV on, not because I thought it would warp their brains or stop them socialising. I do however think it is important for children to have some boredom time, when they are forced to create their own fun – making signs or whatever – with no input from technology or adults either. Children only find ways to do that if they are given boredom time rather than sitting around waiting to be constantly entertained.

    NS Reply:

    @Reluctant Blogger, I agree about boredom being a good motivator for creativity. If my daughter’s complaints are anything to go by, boredom is not in short supply. ;

  16. amy says:

    My girls love to watch TV and for the most of the time it is used as background noise. They may only actually sit down and watch it properly for about 3hours which in the morning before school and when they come home. 2yr old isn’t a big fan of TV watching, she prefers dvds. I’m not worried about them watching TV, 4year old loves using my laptop and plays games on cbeebies, i think it is great how she can navigate herself around a website and use a computer. I didn’t use a computer untill i was around 8. We live in modern times and we have to get our children ready for living in this world where TV,media and computers dominate our time xxxx

    NS Reply:

    @amy, 8?! That made me feel old. I think I was about 14. :D

  17. Iota says:

    Great post.

    I’ve always thought that the “children watch too much tv and that’s damaging for them” mantra is really a reflection of the fact that “adults watch too much tv and that’s damaging for them”. But no-one dares say that. What children do is usually dependent, to some degree, on what the adults around them are doing.

    NS Reply:

    @Iota, Very true. I actually don’t watch much TV at all myself but I do spend a lot of time on the computer, reading and writing. I can’t very well expect my kids not to pick up on that.

  18. Lisa says:

    Great post! I have been pondering this subject myself as of late and its nice to see my own perspective echoed by others.

    As with everyone else, I am all for seeking out a good balance dependent upon your own child’s/children’s particular personality and interests. In our house I have noticed that our movie watching habits correspond directly with my and my husband’s stress levels. If we are feeling particularly stressed or sick, my children watch loads of movies.

    This whole argument about technology time seems to be just another chapter in the “Ideal Parenting” book where mothers and fathers are expected to be super parents. We must adhere to these ridiculous rules that “THEY” put forth. We must research every single thing our children are exposed to. Frankly, I don’t have enough time in my day to read multiple studies on whether or not that extra hour of television is going to rot my children’s brains. Oh, and we mustn’t forget to make sure those studies were scientifically correct by reading other studies on studies and so on. (And that isn’t to denounce doing good research on major issues.)

    Personally, short of obvious child abuse and neglect…if it feels right, it probably is.

    NS Reply:

    @Lisa, Oh god, the studies. All of these studies we’re supposed to read and analyse, for everything from the chemicals used to make their pillows to sodium levels in their crackers to whether day care and TV will make them serial killers later. It’s ridiculous, I agree.

  19. A Free Man says:

    I feel differently about television and computers/games/iPhones. Watching television is a sedentary, one sided activity. There’s no real interaction, no action required on the part of the viewer. And then there’s the ads, but that’s a different issue.

    Computers, etc. can be considered learning activities if properly deployed. As you point out, realistically kids are going to be actively involved in computing from here on out and learning how to use them – properly, safely and under parental supervision – at this stage is not a bad idea.

    NS Reply:

    @A Free Man, I feel the same way about the ads, which is why I don’t allow my kids to watch any. We watch CBeebies or DVDs only so that I don’t have to worry about that (yet).

  20. Mercy says:

    Television need not be a sedentary, one-sided activity. With my daughter we’ve always talked about what she’s watching and related some of the things she’s seen to non TV activities, like having a go at some of the things from the make-and-do programmes. If it weren’t for “Big Cat Diary” she wouldn’t be a budding wildlife expert. Her vocabulary is beyond her age, her reading age is six years ahead of her real age and she gets glowing school reports.

    Ideally children would have *both* parents fully engaged and balancing TV/exercise and educational activities. But we don’t live in an ideal world and frankly the sooner children learn life is about compromise and fitting in what you want with what everyone else wants, the better.

    Besides, which is safer: I have my daughter crawling round under my feet whilst I’m trying to cook the family dinner (involving sharp vegetable knives and carrying saucepans of very hot water) or she sits safety in front of the TV out of the way? Dad, by the way, is not yet home from work, neighbours one side are still at work and neighbours the other side are too elderly for regular babysitting.

    I feel that those who deprive their children of TV and/or sweets are storing up problems as eventually children will grow up, rebel and overdose. Good parenting is about balance and preparing children for adulthood. Any study that makes parents feel hopeless or guilty has failed – parents need practical guidance, not idealistic theories that don’t reflect real life.

  21. It’s so refreshing to read something like this (and all the comments of like-minded parents) because it has definitely been weighing on my mind lately. I introduced movies to my son this summer during a bout with illness. It saved us both for those few days and I really (truly) enjoyed watching Toy Story II 14 times in 3 days. I had no idea he’d be so transfixed and malleable for those 90 minutes when I had no juice to give to active parenting.

    Since then I use it whenever I need to pay my full attention elsewhere (like cooking). I’ve also discovered the iPhone nanny, as well, using it when his toys and other distractions don’t work out in public.

    It’s my belief that TV, per se, is detrimental for all the sexist, violent imagery embedded in advertising and programming and so for that reason I don’t let him watch TV by himself. But I do plop him down in front of a Pixar movie and happily walk away (although I know sexist imagery and hetero-dominant messages abound in those, too, to a large degree).

    Thanks to you (and everyone else) for the dialogue on this.