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Turn off that TV

GEORGE MATHEW AND DR. SUJA K. KUNNATH

Does your child have virtual friends rather than real ones? It may be time to tune into your child.

Photo: M. Vedhan

Watch together:Keep an eye on what your child is watching.

Vishal appeared tired and his eyes sunken. It was rather obvious he was troubled. His parents and grandparents complained of persistent negligence of studies, carelessness and diffident attitude. According to his mother, Vishal spent most of his time watching TV. At an age when he ought to be talking about his classmates and friends, he spoke only about Ben-10 or Pokemon. At school he spoke only to those classmates who shared this common interest. Evidently, Vishal did not have any real friends. He only had virtual friends. It was beyond addiction; it was obsession.

A study by Dimitri Christakis, a paediatric researcher at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, suggests that TV viewing in very young children contributes to attention problems later in life. According to the study, “each hour of television watched per day at ages 1 through 3 increases the risk of attention problems by almost 10 per cent at age 7. This suggests that those children who watched at least three hours of television per day were 30 per cent more likely to have attention problems at age seven, compared to those who did not watch television at an early age.” Over-exposure to TV not only involves issues with visual acuity, but a range of behavioural problems including attention deficit, intolerance to real life situations, abnormal expectations from friends.

Cultivate good TV habits

The first two years of a child's life are considered critical for brain development. Through exploring, playing, and interacting with parents and others, the child becomes a part of the large social world. The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends that children under two years should not watch any TV, while those over two years should be strictly restricted to two hours a day.

One of the biggest problems with TV is that it can over stimulate and excite the brain. It has been found that the more TV children watch, the more likely it is for them to be impulsive, restless and have difficulty in concentrating. The reason for this is that, unlike normal life where actions and events have continuity, the rapid scene shifts observed in the TV is not natural. Exposing a baby to such sudden and unnatural shifts can cause changes in the neuronal connections being formed. As a baby sits “mesmerised” in front of the TV, neural paths are just not being created.

TV is NOT a family member: Mealtime should be family time, especially dinner. This is the one meal where the entire family can sit together, discuss events and have a fun time. This interaction is crucial for the psychological development of the child.

Work while you work, watch while you watch: Often parents watch TV during study time thereby distracting the child. It is the parent's responsibility to switch off the TV during study time.

Limit your viewing: Schoolwork, sports, and job responsibilities make it tough to find extra family time during the week. Record weekday shows or save TV time for weekends and you'll have more family time. Set a good example by limiting your own TV viewing.

Provide alternatives: Stock plenty of non-screen entertainment such as books, magazines, toys, puzzles, board games ... Enjoy quality time together, start a game of hide and seek, play outside, read, work on crafts or hobbies, or listen and dance to music.

Get organised: Select programmes your family can watch together. Choose shows that foster interest and learning in hobbies and education. Then, post the schedule in a visible area (on the refrigerator) so that everyone can see it. Turn off the TV when the “scheduled” programme ends.

Watch TV together: If you decide to allow TV viewing make sure you do it together. If you can't sit through the whole programme, at least watch the first few minutes to assess tone and appropriateness, then check in throughout the show.

A privilege to be earned: Establish and enforce family viewing rules, such as TV is allowed only after chores and homework are done.

Lock that channel: Often children view their favourite channels clandestinely and turn down the volume and sit close to the TV (leading to vision-related problems) to escape detection. Make best use of the locking facility.

Children should be provided with opportunities to realise their capabilities along with the information poured in through TV. In essence, the knowledge gained through TV will get stagnant if children are not taught to channelise it properly. TV has its benefits. But early exposure can cause devastating brain development problems. As parents, we should take the higher ground here and, for the sake of our children and their development, turn off that TV.

George Mathew is the CEO of The Wonder Years Preschool, Thiruvananthapuram. E-mail: george.mathew@thewonderyears.co.in

Dr. Suja. K. Kunnath is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Speech and Hearing, Thiruvananthapuram.

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