TV and young children
TV or no TV?
That is the question many of us struggle with as soon as our infant/toddler reaches the unrelenting button-pushing stage. Because guaranteed, the telephone and kitchen stove (saucepans boiling dry), will continue to conspire against us - with perfect timing.
Gone are the days where extended family (and therefore additional adult support) lived in the same household. Yet the amount we need to achieve in the day seems only to spiral and those critical most adorable cuddles (plus books, games and toys) to one side just for a few seconds…"there's still so much to be done!"
So is it ok to succumb to the TV option from time to time? How much should we allow? What types of programs should we choose and for which age bracket? How might the television affect a young child's early development? Is the television capable of offering any 'value' to a toddler's pre-school education?
Today, the television is an all-pervasive and highly influential element in the lives of most Australian children. These are all therefore extremely important questions.
In fact, according to Australian statistics, children are watching an average of 44 minutes of television a day by the age of only 4 months, and despite the explosive information era we live in, parents are still seeking answers to the most simple of questions.
But for now, let's rewind a little.
Should the issue worry us so much in the first place?
Well as a starting point, perhaps we should have a look at a little background science, which actually, you're likely to find fascinating:
The human brain is born with its 100 billion cells already in place. The connections between those cells occur most rapidly during its first three years.
By the time a child is three, the brain has formed about 1,000 trillion connections. This is more than it will ever need and so an 'editing-out' process occurs.
The parts of the brain that are stimulated and exercised, particularly during the critical stages of brain development (ages 0-3), will continue to develop in even richer proportions.
Those that are not used, however, will become considerably weaker or even lost.
Therefore, while parent genes have their own role to play, babies' early experiences will also have a large influence over the development of neural pathways and in determining which of those connections will thrive.
It is for this reason that early literacy organisations are now encouraging parents to introduce books to children from day one (we don't wait until a child can talk before we start speaking to them do we?).
Experts also tell us that if the young developing brain is stimulated in the wrong way this could affect the architectural structuring of the brain. So, according to experts, whilst under-stimulation can lead to under-developed neural connections, over-stimulation can also affect a new brain's early development.
This is why what we put our little ones in front of is also most definitely worthy of serious consideration.
So what are the expert concerns?
- Health concerns are that Rapid Visual/Video Imaging (RVI), while often appearing quite normal to adult viewers, can mesmerise and overload a young brain. Its developing attention systems can 'normalise' unrealistic levels of stimulation.
- RVI refers to the speed or 'pace' of what we see on screen during a program, such as colours, objects, movement, and the shifting of scenes.
In the context of television and the very young, it means 'too fast for the developing brain' when compared to the pace at which life really unfolds.
Health concerns were reinforced when international research, published in 2004, established a correlation between early television exposure and the increasing incidence of attention deficit problems showing up when a child reaches school (Christakis et al, University of Washington, USA).
- Educational concerns are that RVI can completely negate the potential benefit of existing 'educational' children's programs.
Nevertheless, inappropriately paced programs targeting the very young continue to be made with little other choice available for parents.
So what could we do to address these concerns?
While further academic research is still required, parents and professional carers can read books, read articles and use the internet to find out so far as possible what is known or suspected already. There are also some very practical steps that can be taken to minimise our concerns where we opt to turn the television on from time to time.
Just a few tips for the road:
- Parents are generally advised to choose DVDs over television. This way, you know exactly what your child will be watching and they won't be exposed to commercials.
- Whilst at the shops, don't take the words 'Baby DVD' at face value. Look not only at content when assessing the suitability of a program (your usual G, PG, M classifications) but consider also how the cover of the DVD indicates that the content is physically 'delivered'.
- Is the program labeled as being suitable for your baby or toddler's age? What is written to back this up?
- Is the program RVI-Free? Will the DVD engage your child because it is appropriately paced, challenging and interesting or because it is rapidly sequenced with flashy graphics and a noisy soundtrack?
- Is the 'stimulation' that the DVD promises going to be a 'beneficial' type of stimulation for your child's age?
- For children under the age of three, try to limit viewing periods to no longer than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. The 'natural' constructive attention span for a child under the age of 3 falls naturally within the range of several to 15 minutes.
- Be aware of what other access your child might have to the television in terms of both 'time exposure' and content. If your child attends childcare, don't be shy to make enquiries.
- When the TV is off, allocate a portion of your time with your child to activities that require a little 'focus', giving your child an opportunity to exercise this skill.
The great news is that NO! It's not all a matter of worry! Where media is carefully crafted to suit a specific age user-group and where viewing periods are structured and carefully monitored by parents, the perceived opportunities for benefit can be enormous.
DVDs with age-appropriate content, carefully tailored in their delivery to meet the needs and limitations of the very young, are capable of far more than serving to eliminate or reduce the possibility of sensory overload. Will they make your baby 'smarter', 'a genius' or an 'Einstein'? No, I think it's safe to say that all the experts agree on this. (For the record, Einstein had no television and didn't speak until the age of 3. He turned out just fine!).
But where you do decide to turn the TV on from time to time, if the chosen program provides your little one with an opportunity to:
- properly process what they see and hear;
- think; and
then the possibility of achieving a positive healthy early learning environment for your child is undoubtedly significantly increased. These types of programs are also capable, with the right content, of being supplementary learning aids to book reading and literacy.
Here is it also worthwhile considering a DVD's likely vocabulary and phonetics. Are its contents Australian-English or American-English?
Check for educational content but also keep in mind that educational content needs to be comprehensible for your child's age bracket to have any true educational value. The pace at which content is delivered is also highly relevant to whether a program is going to be comprehensible.
The sad news is that for a long time now, there has been very little out there which offers good educational content and age-appropriate delivery. What we can do, however, is arm ourselves with as much information possible to make our own independent decisions and household rules. For those who don't mind turning the television on from time to time, why not appeal for an increase in production of the age-appropriate educational programs we so desire!