Do Our Kids Watch Too Much TV?

A “green” mom is shocked that her kid can’t get enough of the television. Parenting fail, or inevitable?

“Who’s as super cool as Dora, Dora?” No one as far as Coraline is concerned. And this concerns me to no end.

We never intended for Coraline to watch television. At least, not until she was in grade school (totally naïve, I know). I don’t have cable, but all it took was the occasional Sesame Street video on YouTube, which became the occasional episode of Sesame Street on Netflix. Despite a full-blown Elmo obsession, Coraline could easily go days without any screen time, and didn’t skip a beat if she was denied it; it was totally under control. I’ll admit, there were moments when I was overwhelmed and needed five minutes to finish dinner or do a phone interview that I actually tried to get her to watch something. More often than not, she saw my bait-and-switch for what it was and called me out by clinging to my leg and screaming relentlessly for my attention.

Then, seemingly overnight, she was obsessed. One day we watched as she pulled up Netflix on an iPhone and selected an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba. After picking up our chins off the floor, the fear set in. As amazing as her innate technological fluency was, it was disappointing… and scary. Are we that plugged in? Fast forward a few months: “Coraline watch Dora.” That’s one of the first things I hear in the morning, after nap, before bed, and at least a dozen times in between. And if she hears “no,” it’s major meltdown time. Though she still only watches up to an hour a day (and some days none at all), her persistent affinity for the little bilingual heroine feels like my first great parenting fail.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of television a day for kids age two and up and no screen time for babies under two. Still, most kids spend between three to four hours in front of the television a day. The problem isn’t so much what it’s doing to your child, as much as what your child isn’t doing with it. For a small kid whose cognitive, social, and motor skills are developing at warp speed, time spent vegging out in front of the boob-tube is time not spent exploring their environment and exercising their imagination. Most parents I know feel a tremendous amount of guilt for the time their kids spend watching shows. But they do it because it’s easy. And when you’re in the thick of it, especially juggling work or a new baby, the television becomes a tool. A great, big, enticing pause button.

A few weeks ago, I came across a funny post where the blogger suggested we modern helicopter-attachment parents just need a dose of 1970s nonchalance. She fondly recalled the amounts of time she spent with her siblings in front of the TV eating sugary Boo Berry cereal. Even as a child, she understood that her mother loved her but that she had a life and it didn’t revolve entirely around her children, pointing out that she turned out just fine, as did the majority of her generation. And she has a point. Are we naturally-minded parents screen-averse because it’s really so bad for our kids, or because it has somehow become significant of misplaced priorities, or — gasp! — our inability to do it all, all the time?

What do you think? Do your kids watch TV? If so, what and how often? Were you raised watching television? 

This article from Baby Center offers some great guidelines about enforcing limits and how to use television as a learning tool.

For more information on the developmental science of screentime, check out Into the Minds of Babes: How Screentime Affects Children from Birth to Age Five by Lisa Guernsey.

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