Children watching television, more often than not, bring a sense of calm and even joy to the household
For younger children, educational shows like "Sesame Street" can improve their cognitive abilities
I’ve never met a parent at ease with the fact that their children watch television. This includes many, many lovely, curious and conscientious parents who allow their equally lovely, curious and conscientious children an American Academy of Pediatrics-approved one to seven hours a week of television and video games.
Their kids love it. And they, the parents, seem to find relief in the break it gives them.
Still, when the subject of TV comes up, they squirm. They stutter. Their cheeks turn red and their eyebrows cinch as they, so apologetically, explain why they need, really need, to turn on cartoons to cook dinner or catch their breath. In each of their minds lurks the specter of some other parent, be it a tech mogul or a supermom, whose children are living their best lives, blissfully, productively, screen-free.
Their defense of their children’s screen time is not so much a confession but a concession to the better parent they’ll never be.
Why? There’s no evidence that children watching some television is a problem, and more often than not, it brings a sense of calm and even joy to the household. Even more strange: Most of us were raised in a time when “screen time” wasn’t a concept, and our afternoons were spent engaged in “Saved by the Bell.” Few if any of us attribute our neurosis or professional hiccups to this pastime. Why do we assume our children will fare any differently?
Where TV-related guilt comes from
For her recently published book “The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life,” Anya Kamenetz, an education correspondent at NPR, pored over all the research on TV consumption and children and found that the majority of parents have nothing to worry about.
“We know that most kids who watch some TV are going to be fine,” she said, adding that parents with children with behavioral disorders or who are on the autism spectrum might want to be extra careful.
The problem isn’t television but what television can replace. If sitting in front of the TV gets in the way of physical activity and socializing, then yes, problems can arise. But a cartoon a day is not going to pave the way for weight problems, an inability to connect with others or an SAT disaster down the line.
Kamenetz explained that the culture shift around screen time is not the result of increased use. “By the numbers, kids are not spending more times with screens than they were in the ’80s,” she said.
Instead, the shame and grief stem from the rise of a parenting culture, among better-educated and wealthier parents, that expects moms and dads (OK, mostly moms) to be intensely devoted to their carefully cultivated children. A cartoon represents a breach on both accounts: The parent is being lazy, and the child is not engaging in an activity that will bring them one step closer to an Ivy League education.
“We feel guilt putting our children in front of a screen because it is a violation of the premise that we are supposed to be constantly educating them,” Kamenetz said.
TV has its benefits
Kamenetz suggests that parents should watch television with their children as often as possible. This allows the parents to discuss character motivations with their children and, in the process, try to cultivate empathy in them. Also, if parents are struggling to discuss a thorny subject with their children – perhaps bullying or puberty – watching a show about it together can open up the conversation.
“Humans have always used stories to help things make sense … and deal with emotions,” she said.
TV also gives parents a chance to better understand their children. For all of my life, I’ve viewed action films with a dismissive bewilderment. Immersing myself in a Manichaean world where the good guys always beat bad guys? Meh.
But then, at my older son’s behest, I began watching children’s action TV shows and films, and it started to make sense. While I’m still not likely to pay money to see Tom Cruise dangle out of a helicopter anytime soon, I understand the rush of power one might feel from seeing him do so. Seeing a good guy overcome all odds to get the bad guys creates a sense of power and moral clarity, two things my son aims to replicate in his pretend play. Thanks to multiple shared viewings of “The Incredibles” and “Ninjago,” I’m now more adept at joining in.
This social function of television doesn’t just help the adult-child bond. It can also help kids relate to one another. Shared interest in TV shows and movies can help forge relationships and may make new, and scary, social situations easier for children.
“Fictional worlds can offer shared worlds to people who don’t yet have anything in common,” explained Jessica Black, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Oklahoma who studies the relationship between narrative, morality and the imagination. She explained that this could be especially true for young children, for whom “the line between fantasy and reality can be tenuous.”
My “Ninjago”-loving son spent much of his first week of kindergarten seeking out children who know the show’s story and characters and were willing to re-create them with him on the playground. Now, they’ve moved on to their own creations – zombie tag is the current favorite – but their shared in interest in “Ninjago” helped ease the transition.
Black said she grew up in a no-TV house and felt that she suffered socially for it while growing up.
“It’s important for kids to find common ground with other kids when they go to school. When I was growing up, it was traumatizing when teachers would ask us about our favorite TV shows and I couldn’t answer. I didn’t want to put my kids through that,” Black said.
She also pointed to research showing that television can give children a feeling of belonging and help them navigate thorny matters surrounding their racial and sexual identity. For younger children, educational shows like “Sesame Street” can improve their cognitive abilities.
Not every moment of childhood has to be about optimization
But maybe all the above is missing the point. Maybe we shouldn’t be focusing on the educational, social and emotional benefits of TV and should instead be OK with it because it is, quite simply, super fun.
“In modern parenting culture, it is hard to resist the temptation to moralize everything and have everything fit to brain enhancement,” Kamenetz said. “But TV is a fun part of growing up and a treat. Especially if you don’t have it all the time.”
TV is a pleasure. There are compelling images, stories and sounds – often of places we would never, or could never, step foot in. These worlds can be beautiful, and they can be funny. They also allow one’s brain to, for a brief period, turn to a nice, calm mush.
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Not everything we do needs to be in service of a higher purpose – a better, shinier us. Sometimes it’s OK to just sit and laugh or feel the thrill of watching the impossible. Sometimes the best part is the warm body coiled up beside you, creating a still intimacy that’s hard to come by the rest of the day.
I have a visceral memory of this feeling from watching television as a child with my siblings, and I cherish it now when I watch television with my son. And when my younger son, now 1, is ready to join his brother on the couch, I will guiltlessly place him there, delighted they may experience these pleasures together.
That’s a pleasure to me, no matter what appears on the screen.
Elissa Strauss writes about the politics and culture of parenthood.