Watch with Mother?

The TV debate – how much is too much?

Recently my two-year old daughter Millie had a friend round to play. When Millie asked to watch television, I switched on without even thinking about it, until her friend’s mother told me that she does not allow TV. Instantly, I felt a complete failure, taking her comments as total criticism of me and my parenting.

When I was little, TV time was a treat because it was so limited. Today, the world is caught up in a digital revolution. With Sky, Freeview, digital recording and shows on-demand, we have TV on tap. We can watch what we want, whenever we want, and our children know this all too well.

When Millie was born I intended to limit her TV time, but as she grew older I found myself allowing more. Now that she is almost three, the TV has crept into our lives more and more, and she can use the remote control by herself. I use it as an incentive or reward, and it has been a lifeline if one of us is unwell, or if I simply have to get something done. We usually watch in the morning until breakfast, and then again while getting ready to go out. It generally goes on after preschool and continues through lunchtime, when I try to switch off until dinnertime.

Television has a poor image, and has been linked to many of society’s problems such as child obesity, inactivity and anti-social behaviour. However, many shows made for young children have an educational content and are devised to benefit their target age group. As ever, it is down to us to try and get the balance right.

According to Liz Attenborough, manager of Talk to Your Baby, a campaign of The National Literacy Trust, imposing a total ban may be difficult in practice: “There are reports on the issue that paint a potentially worrying picture for parents,” she says. “For most families, however, it is unrealistic to expect that children will not see television at all.”

“A parent’s guide to television” is produced by the campaign to help parents make the most of TV for young children, and is also a reference for healthcare professionals. It recommends restricting TV time to no more than 30 minutes a day for children under two, and up to an hour for children aged three to five. I admit that most days I give up on this by breakfast time. Programmes should be age-appropriate featuring educational content and material that is familiar to the child, as well as new concepts. Shows encouraging verbal responses are ideal for children aged three years and over. I do try to select what I consider to be educational and interactive, but Millie knows what she wants to watch, and whilst some programmes may be less beneficial, she still finds them interesting.

According to the guide, parents should watch with their children whenever possible, and take time afterwards to talk and to encourage creative play around what they have just seen. This is definitely what I aim for, but when I reflect on how far I succeed, I admit that I have to do much better. The TV should be turned off when not being watched, because constant background noise can distract children from conversation and play. The guide also recommends watching familiar DVDs or recorded programmes, as young children will benefit more from the repetition of words, phrases and concepts than from watching something new every time.

Personally, I always think of TV time as relaxing and recreational, and we all need some downtime in a busy day. I also believe there are potentially educational and developmental benefits from watching suitable, age – appropriate programmes. My own daughter certainly seems to have gained from certain shows, and I never thought that she would practice yoga, speak a few words of French or try some ballet steps, all of her own volition. Together we have learned to grow sunflowers, make pizza faces and create splat paintings. I have also noticed that she repeats new words and phrases that she has learned from television.

However, I realise that I need to accept responsibility and take control of my daughter’s viewing. A total ban would deprive Millie of something she loves, and something that, if I manage to get the balance right, can be a valuable educational tool. There is only so much creative play, reading, baking and artwork that we can do in a day, and sometimes mummy needs a break too.

Setting a strict limit of an hour a day sounds like a good idea, but it would probably not work for us. Sometimes Millie gets tired and needs extra downtime if we have been busy, and there is a lot to be said for snuggling up together with a DVD on a rainy afternoon. On the other hand, I have to work on not giving in to her every time she wants the TV on, and try to think of something else to distract her. “It is more realistic to advise that parents limit the time children spend in front of the TV, and that children have adult company while watching programmes or DVDs,” says Liz Attenborough. “Parents can then talk to children about the things that they are seeing on screen, which turns the activity into a positive opportunity for both parent and infant interaction and developing crucial early language skills.”

We both enjoy watching together and chatting about what we have seen, although I am not very good at making time for this. I know there will probably still be times when the TV is on whilst I am working or doing housework, but where possible, I will look at it as an activity, rather than something to fall back on when I am busy. That way, maybe we will both get a bit more out of it.

By Helena Eynon

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  1. This is a really interesting topic. My children both love TV and, if I let them, would watch it for hours. And, sometimes, I admit, I do use it as a 'babysitter', whilst I get on with things round the house. Not something I am proud to own up to, but I think it's quite common amongst my mum friends.

    Recently though, I decided to strictly limit TV. More as an experiment than anything else. At first, both children were crying out, "Telly on, telly on!" (which was pretty worrying – shows how dependent we'd all become). However, they then turned to the piles of neglected toys they'd accumulated over the years and forgot all about CBeebies.

    I'm no saint though. TV is still on at breakfast time and bedtime while I get on with clearing up. It's all about balance, and, like you say, some programmes are definitely more positive and educational than others.

  2. For ages I was proud of the fact that Felix never watched TV… then I was seven months pregnant and shattered and it gave me a little respite in the afternoons. Then when Iris was born it was useful to keep Felix happy while I dealt with her. Now we watch far too much. One of the first things Felix says in the morning is "watch a bit of Beebies?" which is just awful! We'll get back on track though, I promise!

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