July 9, 2006

Television and Screen Time

Recently a reader posted the following comment:

Terri Henderman said...I'm new to homeschooling and my children at just slightly older than yours. I originally chose to homeschool becuase of that my children were mimicing from other children at school ( who got it from the television). I utilize the internet to help with teaching and therefore have filters to help protect my children. I keep haveing the same old problem with the television though. I don't think its completely "evil" so I dont want to get rid of it and its hard to preview and watch everything before or with my children.

Have you had issues with this? What do you think about television content? Post a blog about it.. I bet we'd all like to read.

In order to answer this question I need to first make an important distinction for everyone to understand. To me there is a difference between television (cable, satellite, digital, local) and "screen time". Screen Time includes television but it also includes watching movies, dvd's, computer games, and internet time. All the time our kids spend in front of a screen. Our family chooses not to watch television at all (with extremely rare exceptions like the olympics, presidential debates and ingurations). However, my family does have its fair share of "screen time" including plenty of movies.

Since I think Terri's question revolves around television that is what I am going to focus on here. I have been TV free for 13 years now. During this time I have owned a television set but have not paid for any sort of television service nor have I watched local free network channels. I started this before I was married and Serona adopted it when we got married and we have continued it in raising our children. We do own a pair of bunny ears that we take out every few years for major events we feel it is important or enjoyable to watch. However our children have had very little television exposure.

This past year while watching the Olympics Rhiannon (soon to be 7) was astonished that her grandparents in NY were watching the same thing at the same time. She also could not understand why we could not pause the action for her to take a bathroom break. That is how rare TV watching has been in our home.

My reasons are many and they are personal reasons. They work for me, they work for our family, they may not matter to you or work for your family. So what I say in this post is my opinion and I am sharing it because I was asked - skip it if you want, read it if you want. That being said I have some pretty strong feelings that we have made the best decision for our family and my language will at times be strong - that does not mean I think everyone need make the same choices.

I first stopped watching television because I found it to be a waste of valuable time. I was a freshman in college and I watched people around me spending lots of time watching television in groups or individually. I did not find it very enjoyable in general and there were so many more interesting things to do in college besides all the things I needed to do - like study and competitive debate.

While in college the internet took off and I also began reading newspapers and magazines more for debate. I realized how I could get more thorough and less biased information through these mediums in quick and efficient ways and the pull of the need to watch the news to know what was going on became null. Once I stopped I realized how much time this freed up. I was filling my time with much more useful and interesting things.

After doing this for a few years when I went back and tried to watch television I found nothing interesting on it. I also saw the dowhill slide it had taken. I was not subject to the frog sitting in the frying pot syndrome rather it was like a slap in the face at how the standards had decreased and over the past few years seemingly disappered altogether. I found that I saw things that other people did not or was bothered by things that others thought were just fine because they saw them day in and day out.

Our first year of marriage we found how much we loved this freetime that other couples filled up with the television. We read together, we played board games, we went on dates, we had great conversations, we took walks together and many other things that engaged us together and filled our time. We made lots of memories together. When we wanted some movie entertainment we rented a film that we wanted to see. We knew what to expect (if we wanted to) and enjoyed watching something together that way on our own schedule and by our own desires. We were never subject to the flipping to see what is on and settling for something.

We had kids soon after we were married and our feelings grew even stronger. As I looked at what was offered on television I just was completely against going back to watching it. I found it easy to find good children's videos for the few times I wanted my kids to watch television. I could easily watch them with my kids or before my kids because it was not all the time and we had the time to do it together or for me to do it ahead of time. The few tv programs that I thought might be worth my kids time I could prewatch on video and see the exact episode they would see before them. Better yet they were not exposed to any commericials or advertisements. We filled the rest of time reading books and playing with toys and then board games instead.

As they got older they did learn about what they were missing out on. We discussed it and our reasons for not having them watch television. We explained how we let them watch movies instead for their screen time and then they were seeing things they enjoyed that were appropriate without annoying ads. We could watch on our schedule and the things they wanted. I have always been open with our kids about why we make the decisions we do (in age appropriate discussion and timing)and I found they were responsive to this.

Have their been downsides? I suppose my kids have suffered a little teasing and a little lack of entertainment knowledge in comparison to their peers. They don't know who the purple dinosaur is, Rhiannon did not understand who the PowerPuff girls were when her friends played a game, and Ciaran has not watched typical superhero cartoons. However, if we watched television they would not have watched any of that anyway as I would not have allowed it because it is at best a waste of time and at worst teaching things I don't want them to know or model yet. These downsides pale in comparison to the benefits we have from our no television policy.

Do I think television is evil? No. Do I think television is valuable? On a very rare occasion yes. Do I think television is a waste or inefficent use of time? Most often, yes. Do I think my kids should watch it? No. There are many more valuable things for them to do with their time. Even including screen time I would much rather have them watching a pre-selected video which I can either prescreen myself or use a trusted sources like Kids In Mind to get a general idea before we watch it together and talk about anything that comes up immediately as we see it together.

Besides the time waste issue I have three other main reasons for not having my kids watch regular television. First, it is allowing someone else to teach my kids morals, behavior and attitudes that I object to as the norm. I think this is at the heart of Terri's question to me. Television tend to depict families, parents, and authority in unkind ways. Television tends to promote behavior, choices and attitudes in children that I do not want my children or any family member to model. Any you do not know it until you see it on the screen or don't see it on the show but rather in your kids if you do not watch it with them. If we want to help our kids see positive role models in television, try to older television shows like Little House on the Prarie and the Waltons (both available on DVD). Or better yet turn the set off and let them see you and their siblings positive behavior. Let them spend time with some families who exhibit the values you want in your kids. Read good books that teach these behaviors and values. If they are not watching it, they are not modeling it. Of course you will have to untrain and reteach what they have already learned, but that is easier to do without a daily diet of the values you are trying to unteach.

The second reason is you have very little control over the television. For all the rating systems, show explanations and parental controls you still are subjecting your family to what is on at any given time and are more likely to settle for something just so you can watch something then you are if you preselect ahead of time. Even if you find a good program - each episode varies greatly and you do not know the content until you are in the middle of it. Even if the show is great the clips for upcoming shows may presnet your children with material completely inappropriate for them. All the CSI type ads in family programs is disturbing and some of these are the least offenders. Having not watched it for so long I was shocked at what the upcoming show clips show and present to young children who are watching another program that is "geared to them" - complete loss of control.

The third reason is the advertisments. I could write a whole book on this and others already have. Why expose my kids to advertisments over and over again and teach them to be disatisfied with what they have and always wanting for more. Why give the products and companies I don't see as valuable free time trying to convince my family they are great? A DVD skips this problem entirely. So does TiVo I will concede.

Much of what I have said I disagree with other than waste of time and content can be answered with a TiVo type device. Not that I am recommending them but I suppose if you love TV they would answer some of the concerns of watching TV with young children. Personally we still find it better to just keep the thing turned off altogether.

If you think I shelter my kids that is your opinion and you are entitled to it. We do prescreen what they watch, they are young. We will continue to do it because it is our responsibility as parents. We let our kids watch a wider variety of movies and probably have the only kids their age I know who can regularly answer trivia pursuit star wars movie edition questions correctly. We have made the choices we see best for our kids and I am sure you make the ones best for your own. I just encourage you to think through the choice you have made and make them intentionally.

I don't think you can control the influence of the television on your child without regulating it in some way. If you see behavior in your child that you do not like and you want to correct then you need to correct it. Some may say you need to continue allowing them to watch it so they can learn to overcome it. I would not. You don't cure an alcholic by having him go to the bar every day. If you want to eliminate things from your child's behavior then you probably need to eliminate the source. That may mean taking the time to watch everything with your child or prewatch it or it may mean restricting or limiting the time they watch things or in some cases eliminating it all together.

I will say my kids do not think television is evil. We do not teach them that it is. We do not think it is evil either. However in our life television has little to no place and that works really well for us. The kids are well adjusted and they still get more "screen time" then I think is ideal. A post for another day though.

Just my .02


  1. Thanks for sharing all of that, Tenn.

    Currently in our house, I do not allow TV during the day unless my dh has something he wants to watch (usually a specific sports event, like the World Cup final today).

    We went for 18 months without TV at all when my children were younger, and I enjoyed it. Now we have ReplayTV (same as Tivo) and I don't think I would do TV without it. We watch almost no commercials, and record specific shows rather than channel surfing. Of course, the shows we choose are probably different than most conservative homeschooling Christian families would choose, but we watch them together and have many interesting discussions about them.

    Overall, I am happy with the amount of TV we watch and think we are not addicted to it the way we once were and the way many are now. I would encourage everyone to try going without it at least for a while - it truly changes your perspective.

    Question: Did you let your children see Star Wars Episode 3? Or do they know the story/trivia some other way? Just curious.

  2. I have read that the average 70 year old has spent 10 years of their life watching TV! I'm sure it is probably more for many people...

    I agree w/much of what you said. We do watch TV and I am slowly watching less and less. I think it can be almost like a friend. Sad, but true for many people. I have wasted so much time on TV and definitely don't want my kids to do the same.

    Great post.

  3. I love your post! Thank you.

    Our family went with no TV for 2 and half years while stationed overseas. We have kept that in place for the most part, but I will admit to my 4 yr old having a recent facination with The Crocodile Hunter.

    One thing we always try to do is read the book before renting the movie...there's usually a book of somekind. When we did A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, even a few of the American Girl series, my 6 yr old enjoyed the movies, but always said "The book was better Mommy." And that's what I'm hoping to teach them.