When my son had a shock after watching something on TV, I had the final, clear confirmation that, indeed, the screen can be particularly harmful in early childhood. This is NOT an article about how bad you are for allowing your kids to watch TV. And it’s NOT about how extreme you are to never allow your kids to watch TV. It is about the grey area.
Dedicated parents who fail to protect their kids from dangers
It was Saturday afternoon. After lunch with the kids, I went upstairs and napped with Filip and Ana, while Theodor (who recently turned 6 years old) remained with his father in the living room. Two hours later, when we woke up, the three of us came downstairs, feeling rested and relaxed. All seemed to be in place. While going down the stairs, I noticed that my husband was sleeping on the couch. Theodor noticed me, came close to me and told me with a hesitant, tiny, unnatural voice “Mommy, I’m afraid!”
I reached my hand to touch him and he screamed. I withdrew my hand and watched him closely. He was standing still in front of me, but his eyes were rolling from one side to the other. Filip and Ana were playfully moving around Theodor and that’s when Filip accidentally touched Theodor. In that instant, Theodor shrieked and threw himself at my legs. Although I had become very worried and scared, I instinctively crouched right where I was and took him in my arms. He nuzzled his head against my chest and lay still. My posture was difficult to withstand, so I moved to lean against the wall and that’s when Theodor screamed in a panicky voice “Not the wall! I’m afraid of the waaaaaaaaall!”
Bacteria that kills people
Even more worried, I cleared my throat and asked him a few questions. He seemed calm when he told me that after I had left upstairs, daddy had fallen asleep and he had turned on the TV. To this day, nobody in the family knows what Theodor watched back then or even what TV channel it was on. He continued to say that he had watched some bacteria that was killing people.
He finished his story, I continued to hold him and he continued to grab on to me for dear life, while letting me know that he was afraid of the walls, the air, his siblings.
After about 40 minutes of sitting on the floor together, I proposed that we go to the park, as we had arranged before this incident. He seemed happy with the idea, stood up and said “Yes, Mommy, I want to go outside the house, away from the walls”.
In the car, he fall in a deep sleep. I drove for a while, dropped my husband off to an appointment he had and decided to allow Theodor to sleep as long as he needed. However, Filip and Ana became very agitated and, being alone with all three of them, I decided to wake Theodor up. I did so and then we all walked into a restaurant to have a snack. As we sat at the table, Theodor stared at the window beside him, touched it lightly and then proudly said “Look, mommy, I could touch the window!”. That’s when for the first time in the two hours that had passed, I could breathe easily.
We were/are parents addicted to TV for our kids
Just like many of you, probably, I have read a lot about TV negative impact on kids’ development. I hardly ever watch TV. My husband occasionally watches soccer or other sports competitions or the news. TV in our home had stayed off in our home for a long time. That is, until tough times struck me and I began to turn to this nasty, but permanently available nanny: the TV.
I started by letting my kids watch Baby TV or songs on Youtube by Super Simple Learning Songs. After 1 year, they got bored with that, so I turned to Nick Jr TV channel. Each time I’d turn the TV on for them, I’d feel guilty and disappointed with myself, concerned and upset. When we had calmer days, the TV would stay off. I’d talk to them about how TV is unhealthy, how things on TV aren’t real, instead they are invented to attract kids. My speeches were useless and merely served the purpose of making me feel more at peace with myself over this. I would have preferred to be ignorant.
Maria Montessori told us about the child’s mind and his ability to absorb and integrate experiences as being real
Due to my passion for the Montessori alternative educational method, I have tried to follow its principles at home, as much as I understand them and am able to. Maria Montessori dedicated her life to studying the child and she concluded that in the first years of life – more precisely, during the first plane of development between birth and 6 years old – a child absorbs like a sponge everything that he hears, sees, experiments with his senses and then he integrates them as being real.
I got the confirmation for this idea 3 years ago when Theodor asked me “Mommy, do ghosts exist?”. After I said they don’t exist, he continued by asking me if waterfalls exist. In that moment I decided I was going to help my kids to learn as much as possible about the real world that we live in in their first years of life.
When mommy frees herself, but the rest of the family remains addicted to TV for the kids
While I was struggling to keep the TV off for hours, days, weeks in a row, my husband and my father continued to turn the TV on for the kids. They’d keep it on for hours on end, on channels that broadcast commercials and cartoons for older children, with scary characters. When I was not around, the kids were left unattended, with their eyes glued to the TV and absorbing all that came their way.
One day, my personal battle with the TV ended. I said good-bye to TV and didn’t feel the need to use it as a nanny any longer. However, the other members of the family remained addicted to this kid-aid. I was managing this pattern poorly.
I started to unplug the TV. When they learned how to plug it back in, I turned off the receiver. When they learned how to start the receiver, I took away the remote controls. When they learned how to use the TV without the remote controls, I took away the receiver and put it in the closet. I had several discussions with my husband, and grandparents now know how I feel when they turn the TV on for their grandchildren. They know that if the kids are visiting and they want to watch TV, I want them to call me and if I can I will take them home.
Parents do their best for their kids
Because we use the TV for kids, maybe some of you will think that we are criminals, seeking easy ways “to raise” them, although we are aware of the harmful impact on children’s development. Others, maybe, will think that sometimes turning on the TV for kids is not such a tragedy. This is what self-help looks like when you’re trying to put the baby needs to nap and your toddler kid is turning the house upside down. Or when you need to make an important call. Or you’re cooking, your kids are all over the place and you’re afraid they’ll get hurt.
The real issue is – or at least this is what happened to me – that from offering this self-help from time to time, it slowly turned into an addiction that I struggled with for a very long time.
As I was saying, I’ve come across quite a few materials describing TV negative impact on kids’ development. I’ve also read some articles written by parents who’ve allowed their kids to watch TV given certain boundaries. But I never encountered any written article or video to admit the fact that, like in any other harmful thing that we do, there are various layers of “bad”.
There is a grey area
Offering a kid to watch TV for 15 minutes on Sundays when he turns 3 years old is not the same thing as allowing a 10-month baby to watch TV for 2-3 hours a day, each day, unattended.
Offering a kid to watch a short cartoon on YouTube (where you are able to control what the child watches) that you’ve pre-viewed is not the same thing as taking the child to the cinema where you both watch a 3D cartoon movie that you’ve never watched before and that you have no idea what violence or fictitious characters it contains.
I did this 3 times with Theodor and from my experience I can tell you that, in our days, there is no such thing as a cartoon movie without unbearable violent scenes. Let’s not forget, also, that when you are at the cinema, you can’t protect a kid from what he’s seeing because you can’t pause the film, fast forward it or lower the volume, for example.
Principles to consider when your kids are watching TV
In my struggle with the addiction to TV, I’ve learned to be patient, to have understanding for myself and others, to stop thinking in absolutes. I learned to rather focus on the idea of “choosing the smaller harm”.
I am sharing with you below some principles that you may consider when, if ever, exposing kids to TV:
If you turn on the TV, keep in mind some aspects:
For how long. Studies show that after 20 minutes of watching TV, the kid’s brain enters a state very similar to a coma (where the brain is inactive, not evolving). So, if possible, try to allow kids to watch TV for a maximum of 15-20 minutes at a time.
What they watch. It is preferable to let kids watch something that you’ve already watched, rather on DVD or on the internet, than on TV, where commercials are also on. Ideally, offer the kids slow videos, non-violent, without characters that are entirely fictitious, such as witches, ghosts, and monsters.
On their own or with you. If you manage to join the kid while he’s watching TV, you may be able to interact with him (ask a question, laugh with him, comment on what you are watching together) and prevent the kid’s brain from going into that “coma” phase. You could even have a moment of bonding.
How often. I understand that some parents choose to limit screen time to week-ends only. During the week, kids are most of the times apart from one or both parents and when they reunite at home, it is ideal that they spend quality time together, instead of isolating themselves in front of the screen.
Enjoy or reward. If you decide to expose kids to TV, I believe it is important to do it for their joy (and yours if you stay with them) and not as an instrument of control, blackmail, reward or punishment. Instead of “if you don’t eat everything, I won’t allow you to watch TV”, I recommend a healthier and more natural approach such as “when everyone’s finished eating, I will allow you to watch cartoons for 10 minutes”. Or instead of “I’ve allowed you to watch TV and now you misbehave?!”, try: “the way you speak makes me think you would like to watch more TV”.
Talk with them. In moments when kids are relaxed and peaceful, talk with them. Let them know what you think about exposure to the screen, about its possible negative impact on their development, about what is real and what is not, encourage them to turn the TV off by themselves.
Empathize and set limits. The world is full of people who drink coffee daily, eat chocolate, smoke, use drugs, eat in excess, drink alcohol, or browse the internet for hours on end when they actually have other important things to do. Many become addicted because of their need to forget about their problems every now and then. Let’s call these habits “emotional blockers”. Kids have a similar behavior. They sometimes want to watch TV or eat sweets because they seek to forget about their troubles. The difference between adults and kids is that kids depend on us to get the emotional blocker. They need us to allow them to watch TV or buy them a chocolate. I fully believe that although it is frustrating for them to depend on adults, setting limits around screen-time is an unique chance to build trust, to communicate our concern for their health and to offer support in need (for example when they have a tantrum due to turning the TV off).
Myth. As an alternative to watching cartoons, I’ve heard from other parents and tried to allow them to watch TV programs with real life content. From what I’ve experimented with my kids, the idea that a TV show with animals is suitable for them simply because it introduces real life is a myth. You could turn on a TV program about some beautiful dogs, go to the kitchen and when you return, you find your kid watching an operation on an injured dog or a commercial for a TV program about prey animals chasing and killing a deer (and that is fine if the child is ready to process such „real” information). I believe that it is healthy to apply the above principles for real-life TV programs, as well.
Kids are also human and human beings feel attracted to forbidden things. It could happen for a kid who hasn’t been exposed to TV at all at home, to find out about that in other places or contexts. I admire parents who can do that. I wish I could be one. However, if a child repeatedly requests something that you are not comfortable with, I recommend that you empathize.
Avoid absolute “no”, no matter how difficult this might be for you. For example, almost 2 years ago, I didn’t allow my kids to have certain unhealthy foods (sugar, chocolate, bread before lunch, soft drinks, etc.). Slowly, but surely, Theodor, followed closely by Filip, started doing the following things:
- Asking other adults from the family to buy them the wanted foods, behind my back.
- Unfortunately, no matter how hard I tried to control the food available at home, there were still daddy, grandparents or friends at play, who generously brought home such foods. Theodor started looking for such foods and helping himself (preferably when I was not around). In order to do that, he put himself at risk by climbing unsafe shelves in the closet or onto the kitchen table, from which he recently fell.
- He was taking the food without telling me, hiding in different corners of the house and eating it there. When they’d had enough, they’d hide the leftovers for another time. That is how I found the open bag of sugar full of ants, rotten apples, or jar of honey, again surrounded by lots of ants.
Another time, probably assuming that I was going to refuse their request, Filip and Theodor used nail polish on their bodies. When I used the polish remover to remove the nail polish, it was slightly burning the skin, it was uncomfortable for them. I was only glad that they hadn’t applied the polish on sensitive body areas, such as their eyes or genitals.
From these experiences, I’ve learned to negotiate, secure and fulfill my kids’ wishes, while setting limits. I understood that I had risked their health and corroded their trust that they could share with me all sensitive issues.
Without realizing it, in my desire to protect and take care of them, I had communicated to them the message that if they want something I might not agree with, they have to avoid telling me and get it themselves.
From that moment on, when kids ask for something that I normally would not allow, but which doesn’t threaten their health or life, I agree to their requests within limits. Such requests are to watch TV for a limited time, eat chocolate, sausages, use nail polish on their nails, taste alcohol, and sit in the car seat without seat belt attached for short distances. These are times when I talk with them about possible risks attached to their requests and I fulfill their wishes in a limited, safe environment and under my supervision.
That’s how I got down from my white, puffy cloud, completely devoid of sugar, TV and sausages. I took my kids’ little hands into my own and carefully guided them out of their tar pool of risky, unaccomplished desires. And together, we moved to a safe grey area.
And now I dream how they will reach difficult moments in their later childhood, adolescence and adult life, when they won’t feel the need to over-use or plunge into addictions that will put their health and joy of life in danger. Beause – isn’t it? – they’ve tested it all with mom.
If you liked this article, you may also find these resources interesting:
This video describes side efects of TV over the child’s brain.
This article talks about some of Maria Montessori’s findings concerning the exposure of the child to reality.
I’ve heard a few times parents wondering how the Montessori method encourages creativity and imagination, given that this method of education focuses so intensely on the immediate reality. I like this article as it gets a little into this matter.