When I wrote this page originally, television was still the most popular kind of screen for children. Now, nearly twenty years on, many more children have their own tablets or smartphones. These pose even more of a danger to their health than being a TV addict, so for ‘TV’ please read ‘screens’ or ‘mobile devices’, or whatever is appropriate in your circumstances.
While many people have strong feelings about it, television is neither good nor bad in itself. Certainly some of the programmes are poor quality, and most parents ensure that their small children avoid over-violent or sexual shows. But there are also many excellent programmes available – documentaries on wild-life, travel shows, science demonstrations and the like. There are also plenty of harmless movies, and lots of children’s entertainment on TV.
Relaxing or a TV addict?
Where is the line between genuine enjoyment and relaxation in front of the TV, and an addiction that takes over life completely? Do you give your children totally free access, or limit them to certain shows and videos, or keep the TV generally switched off?
For many children, TV is simply one more activity to choose from during the day. If this is the case, there is no need to impose any restrictions as your child will view intelligently, occasionally, and gain a great deal from what he sees. This situation often occurs in homes where the parents always watch with the child, and have a variety of other activities on offer – outings, plenty of books, art and craft, construction toys and friends over to play.
A BBC report recommends that under the age of three, TV should not be used at all; nor, indeed, any screens such as tablets or computers. It’s very worrying to meet a toddler who has already become a TV addict; often their language is delayed and their attention span poor, other than when staring at a screen. Older children should still have limited access, so if you find that your children are on computers or watching television for more than two or three hours per day, it’s well worth putting some kind of limit on their use, or at least discussing the issues with them and offering some alternatives.
TV as a babysitter
Unfortunately, in some families the TV is little more than a babysitter. If you sit your child in front of the TV (even a harmless video) while you do your baking or housework, you are in danger of raising a TV addict. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with 10-15 minutes relaxing in front of the TV – and if you need to do something on your own, a short babysitting period like this does no harm. But too often the parents see the child passively watching, and the ten minutes can turn into an hour or more. No longer is there any enjoyment – but an acceptance of whatever is shown.
There are also some children particularly prone to TV addiction. They are the ones who switch on first thing in the morning, and – despite plenty of other interesting activities available – persist in sitting watching, even when there is nothing they actually want to see. They lose interest in anything else, and seem to complain any time the TV is switched off.
Beyond TV addiction
When this happens, the best thing to do is plan a week of activities outside the home, and avoid switching the TV on altogether. If you are yourself reliant on the TV for entertainment, this may be difficult – but it will be of long-term benefit to the whole family. Alternatively try locking the set away upstairs for a week – or even a month!
The first few days may be hard as your child suffers withdrawal symptoms, but the worse he behaves, the more addicted he must have been. Make sure you offer sympathy, and plenty of interesting activities which use up his energy, as well as lots of nutritious food. Gradually his imagination and creativity should return and he will want stories, art and craft activities, and time to play with friends.
Planning television time
You can then (if you wish) reintroduce the TV with careful planning. Sit down with your child and the TV guide once per week and circle any programmes which he really wants to see. Discuss with him how long he feels is reasonable to spend each day watching TV. Talk about other activities, and what he must give up if he wants to watch TV – show him how much more time he had when the TV was off.
He may decide he doesn’t want to bother with TV at all, or that he would just like to watch one video as a family each week. Or he may have particular shows that he would like to see. Try to make sure this is no more than an hour per day at most, or the addiction may return. And watch everything with him, so you can switch off at the end. Discuss the shows, follow up any questions which arise, and remember that you can’t believe everything you see on TV. When you do these things, you are using this medium as a useful tool, rather than the controller of the entire family.