Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kids and Television

Today in the Post, an author describes her concerns about young children and television. After introducing the idea that it is possible to let your kids watch TV or DvD's while avoiding commercials, she states,
You probably think that these parents are doing the right thing - avoiding commercial advertising while selecting programs expressly made for children. For years, that's what I thought, too.
The avoidance of commercials is a good thing. To say "it's not the end of the story," is fine, but consistent with the rest of the editorial it should be remembered that small children have trouble distinguishing when programming ends and when a commercial begins - that's the intent of advertisers - and also that for all the talk about programming designed for specific age groups, commercials involve some very sophisticated psychological techniques directed at children within the target market, often far more sophisticated than those used by producers of "age appropriate" programming.
But a flurry of new research says we have more to learn. The problem: We're assuming that our children can make sense of what they watch, no matter how old they are. We're forgetting that huge cognitive leaps occur between the ages of 1 and 7.
Who's this "we"? Is it the "royal we"?
Researchers, it turns out, doubt that a 1-year-old can even make sense of the sequence of information on the screen, let alone pick up the wholesome messages in "Sesame Street." There's almost no evidence that children under 5 are picking up on the moral lessons in "VeggieTales," not to mention the supposedly character-building themes of many Disney movies. And the children's shows on PBS may be more educational, but that doesn't mean that they're always getting through to young children.
This extends to pretty much everything. Babies understand very little of what we say to them, yet still we talk to them. Babies and young children may very much enjoy having a story read to them, but that doesn't mean that they understand the story, let alone their "character-buiding themes" or "moral lessons". Should we also refrain from reading to children until we are sure they will be able to fully understand not just the story line, but also any moral the author intends them to draw? Should we hold off until they can also grasp all of the allegory within a story? How far do we take this? No Teletubbies or SpongeBob until the child is old enough to independently assess dubious claims that certain lead characters are gay?
You may ask, "Where's the real harm if our kids don't 'get' the shows they watch?" If adults are there to provide context, point out new things and shake their hips to the Wiggles, the worries are few. But for most families, TV becomes a babysitter. Would you knowingly hire a babysitter who, no matter how smart, mistakenly leads children astray?
So the story here is, if you're not going to pay attention to the messages your kids are receiving, even if you're pretty sure they're safe and wholesome, make sure those messages come from something other than television? What other sources of messages are acceptable, and why are they superior to television? Or is it that you should let your small children play, unsupervised, or sit quietly in an unstimulating environment, so as to save them from the potential perils of seeing a T.V. show they cannot fully understand?
I've heard lots of parental stories about late nights spent comforting children who were frightened by something they saw in a supposedly innocuous children's show, even if - or maybe because - they didn't understand what it was about.
Are we to believe that this phenomenon is unique to television? Personally, I remember finding the story of Abraham and Isaac rather disconcerting. Is this a quantity thing, based upon the assumption that kids watch lots of TV and don't get any comparable exposure to age-inappropriate material from any other source?
Video is a part of our children's lives, and I'm thankful for it. But as they grow up in a multimedia whirlwind, they'll need us to manage not only how much time they spend with TV and video but also what they watch. That means that parents, TV producers and educators alike are going to have to be aware of what our children will actually be absorbing when the screen lights up.
And that's not such a bad approach to take. But again, why limit it to television?

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