Is TV damaging our kids' brains?

By James Fuller


Children under 3 should not be watching any television and those up to 7 should be limited to 30 minutes a day, says a Bay of Plenty child pyschotherapist.

Parents are jeopardising their children's futures, Augustina Driessen says, by allowing them to vegetate in front of the television for hours a day.

Mrs Driessen believed up to 75 per cent of children could be suffering problems associated with media overload. She said children were becoming monosyllabic and introverted through addiction to television, and urged parents not to take the easy option.

"Please parents, do not just put your children in front of the television as an easy option, it is so damaging. There's not the same level of communication and children can become introverted, less talkative, monosyllabic. It is so damaging to the development of their brain, the ability to learn diminishes," she told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.

"There is not enough play, communication and eye contact with parents. Children deal with their emotions through play. Spend time with your children, interact with them.

Children need to be modelled by their parents, not television. I am really concerned for our children, they are our future. And you reap what you sow in this world."

Mrs Driessen, an expert in attachment and the emotional bond between parents and their children, said the levels of violence seen in children's programming was an issue.

"There's a huge amount of aggression and that concerns me greatly. I have dealt with children who have watched too much TV and they have heightened levels of aggression, anxiety and depression as a result."

Bob McCoskrie, national director of Family First NZ, agrees.

"One of our major concerns is that the 8.30pm watershed for families is just a farce. There is sexual content, foul language and sexual innuendo in programmes as early as 5.30pm. Also adult-rated programmes are being promoted during the kids' viewing times, which is simply wrong. There have been plenty of studies which show the adverse affects on children of prolonged exposure to violence and sexual content.

"TVs in bedrooms are just asking for trouble. Would you let an adult sit and talk, unsupervised, to your child about absolutely anything? No, yet we let TV do it. We shouldn't let TV be the babysitter."

Mr McCoskrie, who has a home in Mount Maunganui, said television could open children up to new areas of learning but asked at what cost.

"TV can give opportunities, that's agreed, but I think the question I would ask is what are children giving up when they are sat in front of a TV? They're missing out on playing outside, reading books, doing homework, being creative, getting fit and interacting with other people, person-to-person, face-to-face."

But Geoff Lealand, associate professor of screen and media studies at Waikato University, said concentrating on television could blind people to more important issues.

"Worrying excessively about the alleged effects of television often deflects attention from more significant factors in children's lives, such as poverty, poor nutrition, inadequate parenting and that can be a problem."

Prof Lealand said the way adults viewed children's television today was often coloured by their own preconceptions.

"We've had TV here in New Zealand for over 50 years, we grew up through a television age and most of us believe it did not affect us negatively. Why should it be different for children now?

"I think we come at it from a parents' perspective, with misty-eyed preconceptions of what television should be, coloured by the television of our youth, and are then sometimes alarmed by what we see now.

"That brings on anxieties which are simply not justified. Children's television has changed, as it should have done. And it's important to remember that children don't watch television through adult eyes; they watch it through a child's eyes. When children watch TV it's a relationship between the child and a special kind of television."

Prof Lealand said television was too routinely labelled as a problem when it could be a positive medium.

"It provides a particular shared culture for children, which is not an adult culture, and that's important," he said. "There are also aspects of language learning and social learning; it teaches children how to interact with their peers."

Supporters of television's positive aspects say its potential benefits include: providing a format for learning about new subjects; exposing children to exotic or inaccessible places; inspiring children to try new activities; encouraging book reading (because many television programmes and movies are based on books); improving analytical skills by discussing media; and providing positive influences by showcasing good role models.

But Katikati post-natal consultant Vicki Kirkland, known professionally as "The Baby Whisperer", said she was seeing a large number of children presenting with issues related to television.

"I'm seeing children from babies to 7-year-olds with a range of problems including: not settling because they're over-stimulated, having nightmares, waking up during the night, sleepwalking, not doing well in school, the list goes on. A big problem is televisions in bedrooms and parents not monitoring what their children are watching.

"I feel quite sad about what our children are exposed to on television today, things they shouldn't be exposed to until their early adult life. That's why we have so many behavioural problems. From a personal point of view, I also don't think we see as many kids out on their bikes, in playgrounds, or out fishing, as we used to."

'They went from being good to vile'

 A Tauranga mother says she has seen first-hand the impact television can have on children's behaviour.

Jenny Mays, mother of Charlie, 5, Bella, 3, and 7-month-old Marlo, said she noticed the difference after her third child was born.

"I used to hear about the influence of TV on kids and I didn't believe it, but wow we have seen it with our own eyes.

"When Marlo was born, I have to be honest and say we did use TV as a bit of a crutch. Marlo had bad reflux and just the addition of a third child made such a difference.

"We didn't have the time to play with Charlie and Bella like before, so they were spending a lot of time in front of the television."

The 32-year-old, who is married to David and lives in Pyes Pa, said it wasn't long before she noticed a change, especially in Charlie.

"Charlie became addicted. He would sit there totally absorbed, he wouldn't come and talk to people on Skype, if you walked into the room and spoke to him he wouldn't even register you were there. It was scary.

"He was taking longer and longer to get to sleep and waking up earlier and earlier. And he became really obnoxious, he had no patience at all. That impacted on Bella as well and they went from being good kids to being absolutely vile. I mean, it got to the point where I didn't want to be around them. The stress was unbelievable."

The situation reached a point where something had to be done.

"In the end I sat down with my husband and we had a chat about it. We came to the conclusion that yes, the third child had changed things but a lot of the stress we were under was down to Charlie and Bella's behaviour.

"So we implemented some rules. We don't allow any television in the morning now before they go to school and they only get to watch in the evening if they've been good, they have to earn it. There's also a lot of mindless cartoons on TV that we just don't allow them to watch at all."

The move brought instant results. "Hey presto, two months later and their behaviour has changed completely. I would say just use your judgment." James Fuller


- Bay of Plenty Times

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