Friday, February 02, 2007

Thoughts on television

Yesterday I was going through some old documents and found something I'd written about toddlers and tellie. I wrote it when I was living in the burbs and pregnant with Una, I think as a letter to the editor in response to one of those: 'My, but how can those evil mothers let their children go near a tv' type letters. I still agree with myself. In Mitcham we were able to get good-ish reception for ABC so Fred watched it. Now we can't so Fred only watches DVDs. Una has so far shown absolutely no interest at all in the television, which is fine because she's got Fred to watch instead (and she's still young enough to play for hours with anything that fits inside something else). Anyway, so this is a kind of lazy blogpost because I'm going to cut and paste it in, but there's more discussion below, since I wrote this over a year ago and it sparked some reflection.

Sometimes I think that in an ideal world, my toddler wouldn’t watch television. In this same world she wouldn’t get sick and neither would I. It would never rain except in a delightful spend an afternoon splashing in the puddles kind of way. I’d have a bigger backyard, a network of friends in easy walking distance and my husband would earn more money so I didn’t have to work from home and I could use that time and energy thinking of delightfully wholesome yet free activities for us to do. Pregnancy would last 9 minutes instead of 9 months and wouldn’t come with nausea, physical discomfort, severely reduced ability to do endless repeats of ring a ring a roses and bone crunching tiredness.

The reality is television is a very useful tool in a parent’s belt. There have been no studies that show minimal exposure to television is harmful. As it happens I don’t watch it and neither does my partner, except for when we watch it with our daughter. She has a small collection of what we consider to be age appropriate dvds. Her favourite, incidently, is not one intended for a toddler audience. It is Travelling Birds, a documentary following the migratory habits of several species of birds. It has fostered an interest in birds which we have followed up through books, activities, discussions and outings. The footage is the result of years and years worth of painstaking and admirable work and I think her interest in the film will lead to a deeper understanding of humankind’s delicate relationship with the earth and of the fragility and yet awesome resilience of life.

Of course this isn’t the only thing she watches. She enjoys the standard kid fare shown on ABC in the mornings and afternoons when we have it on. As a writer I place a great deal of importance in storytelling and through television Frederique is exposed to character, narrative, imagination, language, dialogue…the true building blocks of literacy as far as I'm concerned - stories are the pay off for learning how to read. A love of stories is what makes kids want to read, not the sounding out of individual letters or words. Personally I am not comfortable having my child exposed to advertising but I am sure she will discover eventually that there are other channels. At this time it is my intention to teach her to read advertising with a critical and interpretive eye – after all it’s everywhere, the western world is saturated with it, so it is crucial that she learn how advertising works on a pychological level.

It goes without saying that children need books, activity, intellectual stimulation and fresh air in order to thrive. No child should watch television for hours at a time. But I’ve never yet met a parent who thinks that this is an acceptable way to use of television (or interestingly enough a young child who doesn’t get bored after a relatively short period of exposure). But it has a place, and to make parents feel guilty about using it is arrogant and judgemental and based on inaccurate assumptions.


I'm interested to hear what other people have to say. There's a part of me that's always a bit in awe of parents who manage to maintain a 100% ban on the box, so obviously that part of me believes there's something worthy about no tv, yet I believe myself when I say that there is value and legitimacy in the storytelling and narrative aspects of television. I think we as a society still see television as a "switch on, switch off" thing, as in switch the tv on and we opt out, we switch off. TV time is dead time, we no longer develop or learn. Which is an attitude that comes down from older generations, who saw the television as the death of the book, the death of intellect and imagination, much as their forebears saw the radio. As a product of a tv watching age you'd think I'd give myself more credit than that. Not just 'educational' tv but all tv offers us an experience outside ourselves, an opportunity to examine ideas, environments, values and psyches that are not our own. It brings us in contact with other people, other communities. It doesn't have to be a cheap experience. Take Travelling Birds for example - the richness of images and ideas is truly profound.


  1. As a lover of (quality) television, this is something I get on my high horse about.

    TV has changed. A lot. Storytelling in TV has become (in some cases) incredibly complex. Watching an episode of The West Wing, or House, or Six Feet Under, is an incredibly challenging cerebral experience. It's hard! You really have to concentrate, and actively engage in the process of interpreting, deducing and joining links. It's not a passive experience any more.

    Not to say that there isn't some truly appalling TV out there. But TV isn't one thing, no more than the printed word is one thing. Do we think that reading the back of the cereal box is going to be educational?

    Kids' television is no different. There is some great stuff out there, and there is some crap. A parents' job is to sort the good from the bad, and to exercise control. Not that I have kids, but you know.

    I have a few friends who were banned TV as kids, and now they turn it on as soon as they walk into the house, and only turn it off when they go to bed. They have no idea how to discern.

    My parents allowed me one hour of TV a day when I was little. So I had to look at the Green Guide and select which thing I wanted to watch. I could 'bank' my hour for another day. Now I am all grown up, I watch quite a bit of tv (mostly on DVD), but I never watch it just for the sake of it.

    And just before I hop off my soapbox, I would like to quote R L Stine (of Goosebumps fame):

    "I believe that kids as well as adults are entitled to books of no socially redeeming value."

  2. Anonymous12:52 PM

    I had no TV for much of my childhood (in PNG) and I'm used to claiming that this reinforced my love of reading. But when we were within TV range again, I couldn't get enough of it. Because I'm with you, Pen, it all about stories, the hunger for stories, and who cares what th medium is, whether it's TV or audiobooks or a parent reading aloud or a child reading alone. Now all these have virtues and drawbacks which I'm sure you don't need me to elaborate here, except that TV has virtues too.

    It's a shared cultural medium in a way that few books can match. All the kids know the Bananas in Pyjamas. They all know Playschool. They all (except my kids, for as long as possible) know Hi-5 -- and yeah, while I'd rather live in a world without Hi-5, I'll pay the price if it means a world where there is Playschool.

    I agree with Lili, TV isn't just one thing, and yeah, we need to be alert for crap. But there are a lot of crap books out there too, people, and a lot of crap spontaneous outdoor play that involves whacking people or torturing pets! Just because it's spontaneous and outdoor and wheat-free don't necessarily make it healthy.

  3. wheat-free ... he he ... you make me laugh Kate :-)

  4. "Just because it's spontaneous and outdoor and wheat-free don't necessarily make it healthy."

    Hallelujah sister.

    Lili, I love the hour bank idea - I think we'll use that when Fred is old enough to know what an hour is. And I agree that quality television is increasingly available.

  5. Anonymous2:24 PM

    How come when you were in the burbs you never told me about the CJ Dennis museum in nearby Toolangi? I think he had great influence on parents in northern Tasmania in the 1940s.

    "Her name's Doreen"says the Sentimental bloke.

    There were 6 Doreens in my grade 6 class at Lilydale - Farrelly, Franklin, Fleming, Kettle, Peck and Stone. There were two sets of identical twins, 3 siblings of different ages, 3 Turner cousins and 55 of us in all. Obviously pre-television days. Teachers didn't stay with us for very long.

  6. I have to say, our house the TV is nearly constantly on, frequently as background noise (I'll be reading a book and Deal or no deal is rattling on in the background).

    Jacen (6) watches very little TV even tho it's on. He will watch the news with me in the mornings before school and also in the evenings and asks a lot of questions about the content ( Educational!).
    We do monitor what he watches and when we declare that it's not appropriate he goes off and plays happily in another room.
    One of our fav shows is Mythbusters on SBS (educational). He watches shows such as It's Academic in the afternoons (educational), Temptation (still called Sale of the Century in our house!!) and Saturday morning cartoons ( a childhood right).
    Children who don't watch anything often find themselves on the outside in peer social situations as they have no knowledge of what the other children are talking about and games they are playing (Jacen & his mates used to play Superhero's @ 3 yrs of age) this becomes painfully apparent @ school.
    NB. Home & Away and Neighbours are BANNED in this house)

    Jacen has Aspergers Syndrome which makes conventional paper and pencil learning difficult.
    TV can be an efficient and effective tool for learning when used appropriatly, as with anything else, when used in moderation is not harmful.

    I have a 12 yr old cousin who was not allowed to watch TV more than 2 hrs a week. Even tho he reads a great deal his outlook on the world is very young and naive for his age. Sheltered. Jacen has more idea of current affairs in the world than this kid.
    Unfort the world is a big bad place, with it's share of big bad people. We can't protect from everything tho we as parents would love to. All we can do is try and raise well balanced adults who are able to fully function within society and it's framework. I'm for using any tool I can get my hands on that can help me acheive that.

    My 2c worth :-)

  7. I don't think that TV has to be worthy to be okay. I don't think that all books are worthy. I don't understand that it has to be a competition. Good (book) vs. Bad (TV). Yawn.
    I was that kid who wasn't allowed to watch TV who is now at 35 still addicted to crap. Bring on the 90210 re-runs. Who lets her kids watch TV in moderation, who is anti adverts, anti-Disney, but pro Hi-5 (after 3 years of being anti Hi-5 - I adorrrrrrrrrrrrrre Hi-5!).
    Who thought I had to do everything the same way as my parents (bring on the wholewheat toast!) but realised that I can do things my way with no extremes and still have happy curious kids. Hooray!

  8. I completely agree with you Dusty that tv doesn't have to be worthy to be okay. I mean not that I'd be plugging Fred into something completely inappropriate like a Buffy fest or something, but I don't think there's any harm in a bit of light entertainment either. As a general society we have a lot more unstructured time, a lot more hang time, than ever before. Not everything we do with it is going to be constantly bettering ourselves. Though I think for kids all tv ends up having some kind of educational value simply because it exposes them to new stuff. And there's plenty of so called educational tv that's just rubbish, just as there are 'educational' books that almost make you do the opposite of learning - they induce a deep internal coma.

  9. Glad you posted your "lazy blogspot" thoughts Pen - the TV subject has given me lots of questions over the yrs... and they change as time goes by, not b/c I'm unable to get off the fence (I hope) but b/c I don't really think there is a fence. My mother's lectures, where everything is good or bad, make my head ache. I thonk (will leave that typo) the way that our society is increasingly placing more rules and strictures on a whole range of things is a reflection of our own internal insecurity in a world of wars and natural disasters... we try to create some control through seeking ways to grow "the best" child, to be the best hippy/ own the Vogue home, whatever.

    Anyway, we had enforced no-tv (no reception) until Thomas was almost 3. That was probably a good thing b/c when they are that young there isn't a whole lot of social rejection going on in the toddler scene, and he had a million other things to explore. But now that he's starting school, yeah I am glad that he knows some of the kiddie culture. (as an aside, he *is* a child who will sit fixated and drooling for 3hrs in front of the tv, sends shudders down my spine - I guess I'd rather he zoned (mental masturbation?) like that by reading or running or watching ants in the dirt, but that's my own projections). Douglas, on the other hand, was getting his daily tv dose by the age of 15 months, and he could take it or leave it...

    Wrt content: if there are complex ideas then I want to be there to debrief and to provide the physical safe haven. I often don't have the physical time to be there, so a lot of tv is off. But I have issues with a lot of children's tv content too, lots of messages that I question there.

    Having said that, they watched Pirates of the Caribbean with me a few nights ago and laughed their heads off. Bloodthirsty little things. (I'm still thinking about whether this was ok or not.) They weren't the least bit scared, whereas their older cousins, who live in a house of NoTV, would have been terrified. I think my kids are a lot more in tune with the concept of story/makebelieve through visual media, than their tv-less cousins. It can be confronting if you aren't used ot it. I remember the visceral shock of seeing tv news when we visited ppl, after living without it for years - it tore into my psyche like shrapnel; whereas now it tends to skim over my consciousness. As an adult, I'm not sure that this is how I want to be; I don't want to see orphaned malnourished children and think, oh well, I can't do anything, not my problem, so I'll just adjust my butt cheeks and change channels. So I do wonder if the familiarity with other visual (children's) stories means that they will be desensitised to the real dramas that are presented in adult content? I don't know; we will keep talking and I will keep trying to sense what they need.

    In the meantime, the tv thing is part of our lives, like walking down the street or going to school; it brings the world, into our house and I need to help them deal with it.

  10. Thanks Em, I'm glad you replied to this.
    "like walking down the street or going to school; it brings the world, into our house and I need to help them deal with it."
    Yes, that's a really good analogy, because at some point you also have to trust that they've internalised the lessons they've learned enough to deal with it alone. I don't always watch tv with Fred (if she's watching dvds she's watched many times before) because the point of it is usually to give us both a break from each other. But if we get soemthing new from the library that looks a bit older or more challenging (like The Saddle Club, which has themes for older girls) I'll often sit down and watch it with her (and cos secretly I love the Saddle Club) or if it's Martin's pick, he will. She's going through the stage of asking a zillion questions (respect the narrative flow, much?) so it's kind of exhausting. But I love the questions she asks and the theories she develops about what she sees too.

    I don't watch the news. I don't think it's a good way for me to know what's going on the the world. I can never get the pictures out of my head. I read The Age online and even then, I don't dig deep. I keep up to date with stories I'm interested in, but I don't read everything. I'm just not a news person.

  11. Anonymous2:44 PM

    Hello Penni. Thank you for stopping by my blog. :)

    I'm not a parent yet, but my thoughts on television are similar to yours, I think. And I do like the sound of Lili's TV bank.

    I grew up with my mum who was very time poor (well, she worked full time night shift) and as a child the television was ALWAYS on, to fill in the silence and keep me occupied, I think. I remember if it was off, the house felt cold and lonely. Yet, I struck my own balance: read loads books, went out and rollerskated and rode my bike, and all those regular kid things. Once, a social worker type came to school, and asked everyone in my grade assorted questions about lifestyle. I remember lying that I only watched an hour or so of television, and saying that my after school snack was an apple (it was baked beans on toast - what mum was having for her breakfast!). At eight, I was a bit too concerned about seeming 'normal' and instinctively thought saying how much television I really watched would get my mum in trouble (possibly, I picked it up off TV!).

    The biggest problem for me was a sensitive mind watching the news. Bad. I spent grades two through to four (1983 to 1985) terrified of nuclear wars, plane crashes, Colonel Gadafi in Libya, and spontaneous combustion (the last bit might have been a Knott's Landing storyline!).

  12. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Agreeing that TV can be a great story telling mechanism and also a way of learning about the world.

    When people tell me their children don't get to watch TV, I think of all the emperor penguins and elephants and howler monkeys they aren't going to get to see. It's pretty unlikely you'll be taken to every continent as a child so documentaries are a blessing! Even if when you do get around to seeing South America as an adult you hear a David Attenborough voice over in your head as you watch the animals...

  13. Momo, we're about the same age (I was in grade two in 82) and scared of the same things - I was so terrified of 'the bomb' singular - one man, one button, one accidental slip...

    I also worried about spontaneous combustion. And quicksand.