What are the negative effects of television watching on children?

I was in Mangalore on work and stayed with my niece and her family. Both she and her husband have demanding careers that do not allow them much free time at home during the week. Their two lovely boys aged six and eight are bright and independent. They managed very well in the absence of their parents. I observed that after school hours, most of their time was spent in front of the television. They ate and did their homework while watching television. What I found very disturbing was that they both sat in different rooms watching their favourite programmes. They hardly communicated with each other. Over dinner, my niece said how worried she was about her older son who, in spite of being very bright, was not doing well in academics. The younger one had sleep-related problems. What upset her most was that there seemed to be no bonding between the brothers. She reminisced about her childhood — the time spent with her siblings — the outdoor play and the pranks they played on each other. That night while preparing for bed, I wondered if the concerns she shared with me were linked with excessive TV viewing by her children!

We live in a world where television competes with every other activity in the home. Our ordinary life and time together is greatly diminished by it. We don’t sit around at the dining table endlessly discussing various issues, and spontaneously pursuing an activity has become a thing of the past. The truth is television keeps people so engrossed in the average home that one research reported that families actually changed their eating and sleeping patterns to accommodate TV programmes!

There is no doubt that television with its unique ability to bring conditions that we never even imagined into the sanctity of our homes, is a wonderful medium to inform, expand and broaden one’s life. If used wisely, it can bring families together. Programmes on various social issues that address a problem frankly and come up with specific actions that people can take to prevent them, can help us talk about what we normally want to avoid but should not.

When we think of the negative aspects of television, we think more of the rising tide of violence and immorality that is invading our homes. But according to J. Brent Bill author of Stay Tuned, a guide to selective viewing, “the greatest danger television holds for us is not all its violence and immorality. It’s the way it dopes our bodies, minds and souls — the curse of passivity. Television has turned us into a nation of spectators, we no longer do things. We watch them. We sit alone locked up in our own little television sanctuaries.”

Reduction in play

What worries me most, is pre-schoolers who spend more time watching television. Not only does it lead to a reduction in play; there is evidence to suggest that it has affected the very nature of the way children play, particularly indoor play at home and school. There is a greater passivity about the way they play, says a kindergarten teacher with 35 years of experience. “They will get interested in something, but if it means they have to do something by themselves, they lose interest.” They do not want to explore things on their own. They want to be instructed and entertained.

Children who are glued to the television miss out on all the benefits that free play offers, including the development of their language abilities, the skill and persistence needed for problem-solving and the creativity gained through the creation of characters and plots. Spending long hours in front of the tube leads to the “Tired Child Syndrome” — the child shows anxiety symptoms, and suffers from chronic fatigue, loss of appetite, sleep-related problems and headaches. The subtle secondary effect of television is all too often completely overlooked.

Now, coming to the issue of whether excessive viewing leads to low grades, experts say it certainly impairs comprehension because television does not require active listening to ‘words’. You can ‘half listen’, ‘half look’, and yet follow the story. And in school too they begin to ‘half listen’ to their teachers. Their ability to process oral instructions and convert words into mental images is impaired.

I think what Dr. Benjamin Spock, expert on parenting, said years ago still holds true. He said that the hours of watching television should be limited for children, and parents should come to a reasonable but definite understanding about which hours are for outdoors, for homework, for meals and for programmes.

The writer is a Remedial Educator