Television woes

A study in Pediatrics tells us that all kinds of television can be bad for children age 3 and younger because it increases the risk of attention problems later in life. This includes educational television, non-violent videos, The Nature Channel, all of it. The problem addressed in this study is not that children imitate violent behavior that they see or are exposed to sexual content too early. The problem is the constant visual stimulation that TV offers.

Children’s brains are still developing after birth, and neurological connections are being made as children watch TV. Scientists who conducted the study suggest that the brain becomes wired differently in children with early and frequent exposure to TV. Their brains are learning to jump from one image to the next instead of staying with one focus.

Previously the American Academy of Pediatricians recommended that children watch no television until they reached age 2. Now the concern is going to be about what’s appropriate in the year from 2 to 3. This is a scary finding for people who have been trying to be responsible about television and at the same time use it as an educational tool and a family sanity intervention.

The study is based on the amount of television watched each day. There is increasing risk with increasing time exposure. It is also about percentage of risk. Not all children show the effect. It is not useful for parents to obsess on the possible damage that is done. Instead, we need to work on building focus, attention to task and task completion in each child, regardless of whether it is harder for some than others.

Television is an easy way to pass time both for children and parents and we have become used to it in our living rooms and our bedrooms. Helping young children cut down on television once it has been introduced as part of their day is not easy, and requires all family members working together. The first step is to decide how much TV will be acceptable in your house.

It is not clear from the study that a 3-year-old who has not been exposed to early TV will be harmed by moderate watching of “Sesame Street” or “The Wiggles.” It is pretty clear that an infant is best served by no TV. If your family looks at the risks and decides to cut down on whatever level of child/TV time is happening in your house, it is smart to look closely at the statistics and at the ages of your children and then make a decision about how much time each day makes sense to you.

If you have been using a video as an educational tool while spending time with your child, it is relatively painless to switch to colorful books or toys and puzzles to teach the same concepts. If your large-screen TV is on every evening as you prepare dinner, it is pretty obvious that your children will be watching it too, even if they are doing something else in the room. Maybe you should choose a small countertop model to watch while cooking, or switch to audio entertainment.

Parents use television to reinforce a child’s daily routines, give themselves a chance to read the paper in the morning or clean the house, and to bring the family together in a way that avoids the possibility of parent/child conflict. Ask yourself, “What will be happening in my house if the TV is off?” and then begin to figure out how to attend to it.

This takes arranging rooms so that children have age-appropriate tasks available in an organized way so that children may find them, take them out and use them while parents are dong other things. It takes spending some time teaching children how to do the puzzle, string the beads or put the cards in the slot in the cardboard box before getting up to fold clothes or check the email.

It may take tolerating more kid clutter than before. It takes figuring out how to involve children in tasks like cleaning or cooking with you so that they can help and you can get it done, and knowing that the whole thing will take longer. It takes spending more time outside as a family, because it is easier to get along with preschoolers in parks and backyards.

It takes parents spelling each other so that books or newspapers can be read and time can be spent taking a breather on the weekend. When adults want to talk to each other without the child or children paying attention or interrupting, it may take hiring a sitter or exchanging with another family once a week. It also takes teaching children to have a time each day that they spend alone, whether it is napping, resting or playing quietly in their room while some music plays, so that even a single parent can have some quiet, separate time.

What helped any of us grow up calm, focused and able to think things through before we act? Here are some suggestions:

Make sure children spend some time alone with objects, art materials, books, puzzles or dolls that they must act on to use. Have a box of toy cars that need to be pushed, and the only noise is the one the child makes while pushing it. Supply children with blocks and animals or people to use with them, and dolls with blankets and boxes for a bed and play food, and books that have flaps for looking at hidden pictures, and containers to fill with large buttons, or clothespins, or pine cones, or any object that can be sorted, stacked and poured.

Model using these materials with children. Play with them first so that they have a framework for playing by themselves later. Children age 3 and older first can be taught to play 15 minutes, then a half hour, by themselves.

When children have done something impulsive, before going back to the situation or place where it occurred, talk to them about what can happen this time, and ask them to make a plan. In all sorts of situations ask children what their plan will be. “When we go to the beach what will you do?” When it’s time to go to bed, what book will you want?” In a way, this is teaching children to create an inner world of their own thoughts and dreams, based on their own experiences.

Allow there to be silence. When there is music, point out the beginnings and the ends of songs. Listen to the music together until it is done. Speak in short clear sentences to your children, and teach them about interrupting. Take the time to listen for as long as it takes for them to get their thoughts said to you.

As much as possible, avoid rushing with young children. They like to take their time, and cooperate better when they have time to process requests, and move through their days without the agitation of the sound of “hurry up.”

Take children back to tasks to finish them. Break a clean-up or puzzle task into chunks, but keep coming back until it is finished.

Spend time outdoors. Take walks and talk about what you see, go to parks for long afternoons, watch trains and trucks at construction sights. Talk about the things you are watching.