Turn off that TV....
Whether it’s the tv or computer, children are spending an awful lot of time in front of the screen. It’s time to take action, say Teresa Orange and Louise O’ Flynn.
The Media Diet for Kids
Parents have been saying it for years. Too much time in front of the TV or computer screen must be bad for kids. Our mum certainly thought this was the case. “Turn that telly off, or you’ll get square eyes,” we would often hear her say.
Looking back on it now, there wasn’t even that much to watch anyway. And in any event every day after tea, when the Test Card popped up on the screen, we had no choice but to turn it off. Things are certainly different for parents and children today. A lot of the change is for the better. Thanks to modern media, kids now have opportunities that we would never have dreamed of. They can watch just about anything at anytime of day – or night. They also don’t even have to be at home to watch their favourite soap or play the latest computer game – thanks to mobile screens they can do it on the bus or on the way home from school. But the downside is the amount of time kids are spending in front of the screen. Parents also seem to be losing touch with what they’re watching. Eleven-to-15-year-olds spend on average 53 hours a week in front of the screen – whether it’s watching TV, videos or DVDs, playing computer games or just being on-line. And nearly 60% of nine-to-19-year olds who go on-line once a week have experienced on-line pornography.
As two mums with five media-hungry kids between us, we became aware of our children’s dependence on the screen. As media professionals, we also noticed the growing number of new research studies that show children suffer long-term problems if they spend too much time in front of the TV or computer screens in their formative years. Square eyes are only part of the problem. There are a whole range of physical, social and mental conditions that millions of children are suffering, simply because they’re spending so much time watching TV or playing on the computer.
We decided to do our own research to find out how conscious other parents and child carers were of the dangers of media bingeing. What effects have they noticed on their children? Why do so many parents let their kids watch the screen for so long? Do they want to do something about it – and, if so, what’s holding them back? Most importantly, what do kids think? How would they cope without the screen? Do they themselves think they consume too much?
We interviewed over 100 people with first-hand experience of bringing up children – mums, dads, grandparents, carers, teachers, media and child experts. We also talked to kids themselves. They came from a range of different backgrounds. Some lived in the city, others in the country. All of them had a wealth of different views and experiences.
In our discussions, we focused on the problems around kids’ media consumption. But what makes this research different to any other is that we also explored the solutions – were there any practical tips, for instance, that parents and carers wanted to exchange with one another? The research came up with a fascinating insight into the role of TV and computer games in modern-day life. The first big finding was that parents are not conscious of how much TV and computer time kids consume until they monitor it. We got parents to fill in a diary and report back. They were amazed – and often dismayed – at the results.
The national average for a child of 7.5 hours of screen consumption a day, was confirmed by the diaries in our research. At the weekend, many kids appear to be glued to the screen for eight or more hours a day. We also identified a number of different types of parents. There were those who were resigned to the fact that kids of today are tied to the screen, and those who wished they could do something about it, but weren’t certain how to act.
There was also a big difference between mums and dads. Mums were more conscious of the dangers of media bingeing than dads, particularly when it came to computer games. With computer games, it’s often dad and the kids versus mum. Dad will pop down to the computer game shop with the kids, when mum thinks they are elsewhere. In one home we went to, the mum had just discovered a secret stock of “18” games that the dad and kids were dipping into.
Sport on TV can also be tricky territory for mums with sport-mad partners. In many homes, we found that mums had just given up trying to limit what the family watched. Mums often wanted to try and get things under control, but lacked the courage and conviction to do so. They also felt at a loss about how to do it. Addiction to the screen among kids seemed to depend on a variety of things. Certain forms of media are certainly more addictive than others. Computer games, for instance, are more addictive than TV. And MSN is more addictive than e-mail. In some homes, kids were glued to MSN for five to six hours after school.
But the home environment and character of kids also determine the risks of media addiction. Kids living on inner- city estates are more vulnerable. If there isn’t a safe world outside for them to play in, then it’s not surprising that their parents are relatively relaxed about them becoming “screen bound”. As one mum said: “Even with the 15 year old, I’m thinking I’d rather they were inside watching DVDs. Then at least I know where they are.” Kids of professional working parents – or those from broken homes – are at risk too. Boys tend to be more prone to computer games, whereas girls love the soaps and chatting to mates on MSN. And kids who enjoy working to a single goal and are very focused lose track of time when they are playing computer games.
We found that in many homes, parents are losing control over what kids watch as well as how much they watch. In these homes “in-home entertainment” means that anything goes. Particularly when it comes to computer games, the rating system seems to be irrelevant and totally ignored. The majority of kids seemed to have played “18” games and watched “18” films. Many of the eight-year-old kids we spoke to were very familiar with games like Grand Theft Auto. We only came across one child – a 12-year-old girl – who was made to stick to the ratings completely. As a result she told us she was bullied at school and made to feel odd.
But even though many parents are struggling to take proper control of their kids’ media consumption, they are at the same time very conscious of how some TV programmes and computer games can have an adverse effect on kids. They don’t need scientists to tell them how much kids are influenced by the screen. They can see it for themselves. Mimicking bad behaviour from the screen was a common complaint from parents, as was the emotional state that screen bingeing can leave kids in. What struck us most, however, was how the screen has led to the disintegration of the family unit. We discovered children living as modern-day hermits, tucked away in their rooms glued in front of their screen.
We asked one single mum to imagine life without the TV or computer. Her first thought was, “Hooray”. She would regain her relationship with her 12-year-old daughter: “We would talk more. We would do more little things together. We would walk down to the shops together. Do all the things we used to do – before I got her the computer.” What about the kids – what did they think about it all? What came across clearly was the total dependence of many kids on the screen. A lot of kids simply dread living without one. One eight-year-old girl told us “I would probably commit suicide if I didn’t have the telly or computer.”
But kids also sense that too much screen time is a bad thing. Kids described how they felt if they spend too long in front of the screen. Words like “lazy”, “unhealthy”, and “clogged up” were frequently used. Interestingly, kids also believe that their parents are too weak and should do more to control both screen time and screen content in the home. In fact, when we asked kids what they would do if they become parents, a lot of them replied that they would be much stricter as parents. The main finding from our research, however, was that parents are ready and want to take action. They just need the confidence and support to do so.
And that’s what The Media Diet is all about – it provides parents with a threestep plan to achieve media balance in a kid’s life. It’s not about getting rid of the screen altogether, but about managing and making the most of modern media. So, just like “calorie counting”, The Media Diet looks at “time counting” for screen consumption. It looks, for instance, at how to create “screen free periods” of time by making sure TV dinners are something special rather than the norm, or simply by limiting the number of screens in the home altogether.
Digital Safety for Kids
How Much In Control Are Parents?