How much TV is good for kids?

Nicky asked me to write a post on TV and computer use for children. I groaned. This has not been one of my outstanding areas of parenting. In the interests of honesty, transparency and openly acknowledging faults, I proffer the following pieces of wisdom, not all of which I follow all the time.

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Where I grew up, we didn't have TV. Well, that's not quite true. We had one or two weekly programs in English showing on the single local-language channel picked up by our small black and white TV. We devoured them and licked the bowl afterwards. Every single scrap of each program was savoured and salivated over. And we looked forward to our weekly television adventure. So, so much.

Every three years we returned to Australia for six months or so. When people asked me what I liked about being back in the land of my birth, my answer was easy: "Grandparents, chocolate and television." I loved TV. I even had vivid dreams before we arrived about reading TV programs. "I'll watch playschool, then sesame street, then..." I said to myself, practically wetting myself with excitement.

Knowing how much kids love TV, I never wanted to be the kind of parent who banned it altogether. On the other hand, I don't like the square eyed lethargy that comes when you watch too much. It's like binging on lollies all afternoon. Balance has to be the key.  

Then there was the issue of community. I don't like the way TV can divide families. When we finally came back to Australia I was shocked to meet a family who had five separate TVs - one in every sitting room and bedroom. In this family, if we're going to watch it, we'll watch it together. 

Things became more complicated when we realised that our little boy Bright Eyes had autism. If I thought I loved TV as a kid, my delight in it is nothing compared to his. Most of his speech up to the age of 5 came from phrases on TV and most of his conversation even today is still about TV shows. Too much TV is not good for his brain. And yet life is extremely difficult for him (and therefore for everyone) when he doesn't get to watch what he wants.

At one point we got rid of the TV altogether for about a year because Bright Eyes couldn't cope with turning it off. There were just too many tantrums in our house. We still watched DVDs but it was a lot easier to turn them off once they had finished compared to turning off ABC for Kids which plays nonstop all day.

Because Bright Eyes prefers indoor activities and doesn't choose to go outside without a lot of encouragement, we did purchase an XBOX Kinect last year. He gets a lot of exercise from dancing, doing'adventures' and playing sports inside. We don't do 'sit down and press buttons' games on the XBOX. When we go out, I'll take the iphone and let him play angry birds if he's not coping. Apart from computer games on kid-friendly sites like 'Cool Maths Games' that's the only game of that type he does. (It doesn't stop the "Can I pleeeease have a nintendo DSi?" requests though...)

This year we have a routine which I'm reasonably happy with.

 

  • We always watch something after dinner and the children take turns to pick their favourites. (The 'schedule' is inscribed on the fridge to stop extra arguments.)
  • The kids can choose from a half hour session of Kinect or the computer per day. Sometimes if the circumstances warrant it, I'll let them do more. On Saturdays and Sundays I let them watch ABC kids after lunch so I can get a rest.
  • Turning on - whether TV, kinect or computer, is by request only. I give ten and five and two minute warnings when it's time to turn it off.
  • We have one TV and it lives in the lounge room so any watching is communal. The computer also lives in the lounge room and if you want to play, you have to be prepared to have someone watch you and make comments! No computers or TVs in bedrooms or non-public rooms.
  • In the holidays, there are 'no screens' at all before lunch time.

 

I'd prefer less screen time. I'd prefer them to be outside more. But I don't want to fight the battles that would happen if I restricted it even more. I do feel a bit dismayed by the whole issue and I wish it was easier. But that's what it is right now, and most of my dilemmas come from the difficulties that Bright Eyes presents, so I figure, like all the other things, things might get better in time.

How do you manage screen time in your family?