The electronic nanny

Is TV a safe babysitter for our kids?

by Wilfred Clifton - 11 August 2015

Is TV a safe babysitter for our kids - illustration

Many parents can identify with the following scenario. You’re coming home from an exhausting day at work, where everything that possibly could go wrong did go wrong. Your only wish is to have some peace and quiet. However, after you pick up the kids from kindergarten, they start fighting with each other in the car on the way home. When you get home you wish you could crash on the couch, but it’s getting late and you have to start cooking dinner. While chopping vegetables, you are interrupted again and again, having to tell the kids to quiet down. You feel a lingering headache and nothing you say or do, whether a promise or a threat, seems to impress them. Finally, you give in and put them in front of the television. Then you sigh with relief as the children quiet down. What peace!

We’ve all heard, and perhaps uttered, statements such as these: “Sometimes my children drive me nuts,” and “I don’t know how I would cope if I couldn’t put them in front of the TV now and then.” “TV is a lifesaver.” I think everyone agrees that it is easy to sympathize with parents who at times feel that they need a break from their kids, especially single parents who have to carry the full responsibility of raising children alone. But is TV the best way to silence noisy kids, or is this practice counterproductive, even harmful?

We believe there are several reasons why parents ought to reconsider TV as an electronic nanny. Here are a few:

Parents who rely on TV as a babysitter risk ignoring their child

Parents aren’t the only ones who have bad and stressful days. Unusual behavior might, in fact, be your children’s way of seeking your attention. Perhaps your child is unruly and noisy because he or she had a difficult experience in kindergarten. What if he or she was bullied by another kid and fighting with siblings is a way to deal with pent-up frustration? Parents who regularly use television as a pacifier might end up ignoring behavior that signifies something is wrong rather than digging deeper to ascertain whether their child is okay. We ought to remember that adults aren’t the only ones who need time to digest tough experiences. Children, too, must be given the chance to digest their positive and negative experiences. When they are placed in front of the TV, their emotions may be bottled up.

Even if nothing is fundamentally wrong, children often desire and need frequent contact with their parents, even during those times when their parents are tired and prefer to be left alone. Children often have surprisingly little time alone with their parents, yet parents are the most important role models for a child. Families are different, but on average children spend more time in front of their TV than interacting with their parents.1 In light of this, we should be wary of dismissing our children and telling them to go watch TV; the time we spend with our kids is already so limited that we shouldn’t let the TV steal valuable opportunities for interaction with our kids.

Television exposes children to an artificial world

It can be difficult to muster up the strength to deal with the children instead of letting them watch the telly. It is understandable and tempting to allow them to TV binge or to let them play games on an iPad or computer. Some parents realize that this is a suboptimal solution, a quick fix that provides a few minutes of peace of mind, but others defend their course of action in such situations, thinking that television and computer games are essentially harmless for children.

Many justify using television as a nanny by claiming that watching TV is educational. Doesn’t TV teach children about the world? Isn’t television able to broaden their horizons in a way most parents are unable to do? Sesame Street teaches children to count, right?

Television certainly gives children a lot of information, but it also gives us a worldview that is highly distorted. The main purpose of most television shows isn’t education but entertainment, and even the few children’s programs that claim to educate must present the content in a highly entertaining manner to compete with other shows. In other words, watching television will always be like a trip to Disneyland; it can be amusing and thrilling, but very rarely will you learn anything of substance. Or rather, kids do pick up all sorts of things from TV, but not necessarily the ideas and behaviors we want them to learn.

Like it or not, to some degree our worldview is shaped by the media content we consume. Media effects aren’t the topic of this article, but at least on some level, television influences us all. Even adults will be somewhat colored by the things we read, see and listen to. Yet grownups already have a functioning worldview with mental defenses that make it possible to judge and interpret media content for themselves. On the other hand, children are in a phase of their lives when their perception of the world is being molded, forming their identity and learning the basics of how to function in a society. Is it then farfetched to assume that the delicate minds of children are more vulnerable to the impulses from the TV as compared to adults?

The patterns of behavior portrayed by popular cartoon characters are often of the kind that we frown upon in the real world. The heroes of popular TV shows for children are irresponsible and violent, albeit in a stylized and wacky way. Adults may find such antiheroes funny and amusing, being familiar with abstract ideas such as irony and parody, but small children aren’t necessarily able to understand such concepts. We must remember that young minds aren’t yet able to distinguish between fact and fiction. If you and your child watch a show together, the same content will be understood differently. In a way, you and your child are watching a completely different show.

All of this begs the question: If the personality traits of the characters your children watch on TV were present in a human nanny, would you be comfortable leaving your child in that person’s hands?

The TV habit will make your kids restless when they aren’t watching TV

Time spent in front of the TV won’t really help your kids learn to quiet down when you tell them to do so; such a strategy might actually be counterproductive in the long run for parents who want peace of mind. Research has demonstrated that heavy watchers of TV are more likely to be anxious, unhappy and bored during so-called unstructured time,2 and we know that the two groups who watch the most TV are elderly people and – you guessed it – children! (“Unstructured time” is a term for all those situations when you are not really doing anything.)

A study on children’s TV habits published in 2010 found that children and youths aged 8-18 on average spend 4:29 hours a day in front of a TV screen.3 Yes, that’s a whopping 4.5 hours a day! Although the methodology is probably different, a Nielsen study of toddlers aged 2-5 years old also reported similar numbers.4 For media researchers, a person who watches 4 hours a day qualifies as a heavy user of TV.5 So if your child watches only the average amount of TV for his or her age segment, he or she is already at risk for being unhappy and moody when having nothing to do. True enough, statistics hide a lot of variation. Some kids watch less TV than average and others watch considerably more. Yet it is very alarming that simply being an average kid puts one in the heavy user category and makes it likely that he or she will display what are essentially the tell-tale signs of media withdrawal symptoms when not watching TV.

That is why television is not a viable long-term solution to the problem of restlessness in children. The fact is that it could be an important reason why their behavior is troublesome. If you let your kids watch TV whenever they are bored and prone to mischief, this might create a vicious cycle wherein they will be difficult whenever bored and not watching TV, which in turn will make it even more tempting to place them in front of the screen. While in the moment this may seem like a convenient way to get some peace of mind from toddler tantrums and bickering between siblings, it will, in the long run, be detrimental to the well-being of both parents and their children.

Four magic words as an alternative to the electronic nanny

As we have already argued, we should generally be very careful about turning away our kids when they seek our contact. Yet we all agree that there are times when parents simply need a break. Is there, then, any alternative to television as a quick and dirty fix for parents who sorely need a time-out from their kids? Actually, there is! There used to be four magic words that gave parents the peace of mind they desired; four words that unfortunately are rarely uttered nowadays: Go out and play!

For all but the very youngest toddlers, playing outdoors gives children a way to burn off energy and teaches them to entertain themselves without interference from adults. Playing outdoors will stimulate the creativity of kids while the fresh air and numerous impulses will leave them exhausted and happy.

What if it is raining? If possible, children ought to have a dedicated play room without electronic devices such as television sets, video games, and tablet computers. In place of this, they should have access to toys and age-appropriate books. Every child should have access to crayons and drawing paper, Lego, and other toys that will stimulate their creativity. Books with large pictures of animals will give your children an incentive to explore books by themselves, even before they are able to read.

While we grow up we rely on our parents, but one of the most important and difficult lessons of childhood is to develop a sense of independence from them. Unsupervised play in a safe environment is the main vehicle for this lesson. Television, on the other hand, is not a help in this respect because the main lesson we learn from TV is how to be entertained without any effort on our part.