TV Or Not TV ... That Is The Question

During the summer months it's likely that our children will spend at least slightly more time in front of the television. In recent years, the debate about television has raged - how much television is too much? How does the violence effect our children? Is television educational or the ultimate evil? Parents have responded to the debate about television in a variety of ways, from banning television in their homes completely to only allowing videos, to giving their children complete freedom to watch whenever and whatever they choose. But what way is the right way?

Allow me to begin by telling you that I am not an extremist and that personally, I kind-of like TV. I find an occasional show amusing, sometimes I watch educational programs on PBS which I think are truly educational, and I do find it relaxing after a long or difficult day to be able to sit down and laugh at a silly program. My children also watch television.

This is not to say, however, that my way is the only way. Indeed, perhaps there is no right way, but rather an "informed way." Many times television is not used, but abused. It has a tendency to be over-used as a baby-sitter, the ultimate in convenience. Children will sit for hours, zoning out in front of the Cartoon Network while Mom or Dad busy themselves with work, surfing the Net, or housekeeping chores. That's abuse of the technology. Likewise, if children watch it "unfiltered," I consider that abusive as well. For me, there is no question that abusing television is harmful. I do think, however, that TV has good qualities, as long we use it thoughtfully, and are aware of the potential for abuse. So what constitutes use vs. abuse?

To help you make informed decisions about television use in your home, look at the following guidelines:

* How many hours does your child spend in front of the television per day? Don't estimate, actually count. Mary Pipher, PhD says that most adolescents spend 4 1/2 hours per day in front of the tube. I would guess that the number of hours is probably even more for younger children. Considering that our children's waking hours in our home only number approximately nine (two to three hours in the morning prior to school, five to six hours after arriving home and before bedtime) that means that half the time they're home on school days may be spent in front of television. Michael Popkin, PhD suggests that 1 or 2 hours a day on school days, and 3 or 4 a day on weekends is plenty. More than that may suggest abuse of the television.

* Does your child receive "unfiltered messages" from programs and commercials? If your child sits by himself without an adult in front of the television, the messages he's receiving are "unfiltered."

In order to effectively "use" television, we must do some interpretation of the messages it's sending out to our children. Commercials, for example, operate on the basic principle of making the product look more enticing than it actually may be. In addition, commercials pair desirable emotional or physical states with the product - for example, showing two people in a romantic relationship to sell coffee. The underlying message is that if you buy the coffee, you'll have that type relationship as well. While some adults recognize these tactics, children do not. They must be educated in order to fully understand how television attempts to bias the viewer.

Programming on television must also be "filtered" for our children. Many programs promote values, attitudes or ways of communicating with others that are different from our own. Without an adult "filter," children may adopt those very values, attitudes, or communication styles. That's why violent television can be so harmful.

To help educate your child, sit down with her at least once in a while to talk about the impact of the messages people receive from television. An appropriate conversation about a program may sound like this: "Looks like those people are having a good time. Why do you think they enjoy each other? Do you think they share similar ideas? Values? What do you think they're trying to convince you of? How are the writers going about that?" And about commercials: "Is there something else this commercial seems to be selling besides the product? What about it makes you want to buy the product? Do you think the product is actually as good as they're making it out to be?"

By asking our children questions, we enable them to become discerning viewers. Rather than sitting passively in front of the television, it becomes an opportunity for discussion and improves critical thinking abilities.

* Does your child neglect other activities to watch television? Is she watching television because the program is one she likes, because she can't think of something else to do, or because she has trouble disengaging from TV, no matter what program is on? Watching a program because you're interested in it is one thing. Sitting in front of the TV for show after show, no matter what the content is constitutes abuse.

Many times our children not only need help disengaging (as in "it's time to turn off the television") but in discovering the myriad of other activities available to them. Helping you cook, reading, building with Legos or working on a model car, writing in a journal, doing an art project, having a conversation with you - the possibilities are endless. Sometimes, however, our children have difficulty thinking them up on their own, and getting started. Frankly, it's easier to be passively sitting in front of the tube. Once started on another project, however, children often get enthusiastically absorbed.

One mother said "But my son would rather watch television than talk with me, no matter what the program is." I suggested that she might be surprised if she began to enforce a "no television, this is talk-time rule." At first her son resisted, sitting sullenly with his arms crossed. But within a week she reported that he not only was using the time to talk to her, but there were many nights when he chose to have the television off completely.

It's easy for our children to convince themselves that television is their favorite activity. With a little guidance, however, we have the chance to turn TV from a potentially addictive medium into an educational opportunity for our children.