TV beneficial to children? Let’s stop kidding ourselves.

April 8, 2013

I sighed when I read another article in The Guardian this weekend that does nothing more than simply tell parents what they want to hear – this time that it’s OK to let your children watch hours of TV.

girl holding a remote controlThe article offers no new evidence, just the opinion of a parent seemingly trying to justify the amount of TV her kids watch. Another parent wanting to reassure herself that it’s OK for her children to spend hours in front of the TV because it’s somehow beneficial to them. Keep telling yourself that, but sorry, the evidence for it just isn’t there. In fact there’s plenty to refute it, most of which the writer has saved me the trouble of having to refer to since she does this herself, then proceeds to ignore it.

She waxes lyrical about all the wonderful things CBeebies has to offer to such a degree that one wonders if she was commissioned by the BBC to write such an article. I agree that the quality of children’s TV programmes varies, and that the BBC’s are of the highest. But it’s still just TV. It doesn’t replace interaction with the real world or with real people. It has zero value, other than to give parents a break. Let’s all stop kidding ourselves, cut the crap, and just admit it, please.

But what I really have a problem with is the last paragraph of the article;

“Good-quality children’s programmes are an asset to be treasured and the idea that there is always something better to do than watch TV or play computer games is, I think, rubbish – part guilt about not giving our kids enough time and attention, part snobbery about popular culture not being worthy of serious attention and part nostalgia for a more innocent past when playing in the street was thought to be safe.”

Firstly, if Susanna Rustin really can’t think of something better to do than watch TV or play computer games, if she really thinks her kids can’t, then she must be sadly lacking in imagination.

Secondly, I am very uncomfortable with the choice of words here; “..playing in the street was thought to be safe.” Excuse me? Playing in the street was safe. It wasn’t merely “thought to be”. In fact it still is, at least in many areas. It wasn’t just some misguided notion that we’ve now wised up to. And it’s not just for the sake of nostalgia that organisations like Playing OutOutdoor Nation, Save Childhood Movement and Play England, to name but a few, are working to get kids back outside.

And this is really why the article bothers me so much. I don’t wish to take a shot at every parent who ever allows their kids to watch TV. I’m guilty of it myself. I don’t throw my hands up in horror every time I see a child in front of a screen. But I take issue with articles like this because they undermine the very real need to raise awareness of the growing concern over the changing nature of childhood today and the long-term implications of this. They fail to take seriously what needs to be taken seriously, they promote myths, and burying of heads in sand (or in this case, screens).

So please, Susanna Rustin, keep reassuring yourself if you need to, but don’t try to reassure everyone else.

Advocating for children’s play – away from TV screens

October 12, 2012

An open letter to the manager of David Lloyd Leisure.

Dear Manager,

When the excellent new children’s area opened at my local David Lloyd club over a year ago, I wrote to you remarking that I felt the area was very much spoilt by the presence of television screens, and requesting that their inclusion be reconsidered. I pointed out that there were no other soft play facilities in the city, that I am aware of, that have TV screens, and that I felt their presence was disruptive to the children’s play.

Your response reported that the TVs had received ‘mixed reviews’ from parents, but that some liked having them there.

Over the last 18 months I have used this facility regularly. My child very much enjoys the time he spends there – it has become familiar to him, as have the staff, and other children who go there regularly, making him feel comfortable and relaxed there and able to enjoy all it has to offer. As well as taking part in some of the organised activities, he very  much likes spending time in the play area with other children. He is an only child, and this social aspect of the club is of great benefit to him.

However, I have repeatedly observed during our visits there, the negative effect of the TV screens on this social aspect of the children’s play. One of the screens is visible from all angles of the main play area, including from the soft play structure. On every visit, I have observed how these screens distract from and interfere with the children’s play. Their attention is repeatedly drawn towards the screen. Some children are unable to draw themselves away from it, and end up leaving off their play with the other children to sit in the play structure staring at the screen, despite being often unable to hear the sound. Those children who are able to re-focus their attention away from the screen do so only to have it drawn back at frequent and regular intervals. This is disruptive to the flow of their play and their thoughts.

If you observe the children’s play closely enough you will see that they are doing more than simply enjoying the physical aspects of the climbing structure and slide. They are often engaged in some sort of imaginative, creative, make believe play. They devise their own rules and roles, negotiate and interact with each other, create fantasies. This type of play is extremely beneficial to children, yet sadly something for which there are fewer opportunities today, with the introduction of homework at younger ages, more scheduled activities, fear of allowing children to play out, and of course, screen technology.  I therefore feel opportunities for this type of play are valuable and should be facilitated as much as possible. However, it’s certainly not facilitated by the constant distraction of TV screens.

I have also observed other parents at the facility. Contrary to your assertions, I have not seen any that appear to welcome the presence of the TV. In fact I often see parents struggling to get their children to finish their meals because they are distracted by the TV. On a number of occasions I have asked parents if they object to my turning the TV off. They have always been more than happy for me to do so. However, I find that the staff appear to have been instructed to ensure the TV is on at all times. When I have pointed out that I, and others, do not want it on, they have simply put it on with the sound down – as I have illustrated above, this is not conducive to the social interaction and creative, imaginative play that the children are trying to engage in.

I also wonder if your staff are aware that the CBBC channel is actually intended for children aged 6 to 12. Yet the majority of children using the facility are younger than this, and many of the programmes on this channel unsuitable for them.

As I mentioned in my original correspondence with you, children are unable to self-regulate. If a TV screen is there they will watch it, whether or not they find the content disturbing, and whether or not there are better things to do. There have been many studies that show the negative effects of background TV on children’s play and attention spans.

Childhood today is already encroached upon enough by the existence of screen technology.  Please ask yourself again if the TV screens in the children’s area at your club are really necessary, or indeed wanted by the parents, or beneficial to the children.

Yours sincerely

A long-time club member, concerned parent, and advocate of children’s play.


*After receiving this letter, the manager of the club telephoned me to say that they would be turning the TV off in the children’s play area on a trial basis.