“What is going on here? How many times do I have to shout at you before you do as you’re told?”

The nanny mumbles something about the children not listening to her cautions and making fun of her speech so she was unable to stop the raucous. The irate mother shouts for the nanny to take the children upstairs to their room so they can watch TV and give her some peace and quiet.

This scenario plays itself over and over in our homes, on a daily basis. The 21st century shows no mercy to the families of its time: both parents often needing to work to pay the ever increasing bills; the traffic found in certain cities (especially our dear Lagos State) reducing family time on weekdays to near zero; the advances in technology such as Cable TVs, PSPs, IPods, cell phones and internet access distracting children from the simplicity of outdoor play and much needed physical exercise; the list is endless!

Top on the list of distractions (especially for children) is television. According to Kid’s Take on Media, a survey conducted in 2003 by the Canadian Teacher’s Federation, watching TV is a daily pastime for Canadian children, both boys and girls from Grade 3 to Grade 10. By mid-adolescence, children have watched 15,000 hours of TV – more time than spent with teachers, friends or parents: Strasburger, 1995. Hundreds of studies have examined how excessive viewing affects children and young people. Excessive viewing has been linked with behavioural and developmental challenges including, aggression and childhood obesity.

As 21st century citizens, the call is to be more technology compliant and so an inexhaustible list of gadgets is readily available for our populace to choose from. These tools indeed facilitate the acquisition and application of knowledge in all spheres of life but as the popular saying goes, “When the proper use of a tool is unknown, abuse is inevitable.” In this case, we would have to strongly disagree with the notion that – you can never have too much of a good thing. These gadgets are slowly robbing us of our health, our social skills and our family values.

It is important to note at this point that Information transfer is paramount in an ever changing society and a lack thereof would amount to redundancy. Advances in the sciences, in sports, in education and even in government have been made and propagated through the media; enabling the development of third world societies, the evolution of a more informed citizenry and the illumination of previously termed ‘grey areas’ in sectors such as engineering, medicine, education and politics. However, present day media maximises their hold on a captive audience by peddling any and every product that is put forward. As such, our children and young adults are bombarded with sexual messages and images: resulting in increased sexual awareness and activity among them, as well as violent programming masqueraded in cartoons which results in increased aggressive behaviour, desensitization to real-life violence and increased fear (fear of being bullied or assaulted) of the world around them.

Of particular concern is the tendency for the affluent to provide personal ‘gadgets’ for their children (which is by no means wrong) including personal TV sets in their bedrooms. Consider this: 65% of teens have TVs, 42% have video game players, 38% have VCRs and 32% have cable or satellite hook-ups in their bedrooms.  Even a large percentage of very young children have TVs in their bedrooms. Nationally – in the US, 26% of 2-to-4 year olds, 39% of 5-to-7 year olds and 65% of 8-to-18 year olds have TVs in their bedrooms (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout & Brodie, 1999, Kids & Media@ the new millennium).

While the debate about TV has been going on for years, the effects of having TVs in bedrooms have not been acknowledged until the end of the last millennium. A survey report presented by the National Institute on Media and the Family Minneapolis, MN (August 1999) titled, Our national MediaQuotient™ study of family media habits, knowledge and attitudes, revealed some surprising results:

  • Children who have TVs in their bedrooms perform more poorly in school.
  • Families whose children have TVs in their bedrooms engage in fewer activities that don’t involve electronic media, such as playing games, going on outings and reading.
  • On average, children who have TVs in their bedrooms watch 5.5 hours more TV each week than children who don’t have TVs in their bedrooms.
  • Parents monitor their children’s media use less when their kids have TVs in their bedrooms.
  • Families whose children have TVs in their bedrooms have a pattern of greater electronic media use and less reading than families whose children don’t have TVs in their bedrooms.

Little wonder that all the teachers are crying out as they attempt to teach these ‘electronic-media-sensitive’ children in traditional classroom settings. Little wonder that an increasing number of young children are unable to read or even appreciate the benefits of ‘going to school’. Little wonder that the phrase ‘School is so boring!’ forms a reasonable percentage of the conversation of school aged children and young adults.

From first-hand experience, it has been proven that a reduction in the number of hours children spend with their ‘electronic media buddies’, to a large extent, translates into improved speaking, listening, reading and writing skills (with the time taken up by academic support – if necessary, musical and sporting pursuits, book clubs, etc). Personally, my children no longer spend time with their ‘electronic media buddies’ on school days and the results (especially in my son) have been phenomenal: improved speaking, listening, reading and writing skills, increased interest in sports and music.

“You’re a teacher Mrs. Isa, you know what to do! I don’t have the time to watch these children. I get home late, the traffic, homework…..”

The above statement, howbeit true, is the classic excuse given by many-a-parent in our society. As a result of the inability to directly monitor our children’s progress, we tend to purchase as many ‘electronic media nannies’ as possible, so that they can be occupied while we catch fifty winks or plan the next strategy session. These 21st century nannies unfortunately come not only at a high cash price, but also at an even higher cost as the long term consequences of having unlimited access to them may be punitive and not rewarding.

If you are now concerned about television, banning it entirely isn’t a practical solution! Instead, learn to ‘co-exist’ with television by managing how much and what your children watch. The following are some strategies suggested by the Canadian media awareness network, for taking control of your family’s viewing habits (2009):

  • Start young. It’s wise to work on developing TV viewing habits well before your children start school. As they grow older, it will become more difficult for you to enforce restrictions or influence their tastes.
  • Limit the amount of time your kids spend watching television, especially on school nights. Make sure they’re involved in other activities such as sports, hobbies and playing outside.
  • Monitor what your children watch and whenever possible, watch with them and discuss the program.
  • Young children are at higher risk of becoming aggressive after watching violence on TV – especially cartoons. You should limit the amount of violence they’re exposed to and monitor their behaviour after watching violent shows.
  • Kids model their behaviour on that of their parents – so take a hard look at your own viewing habits and if necessary, change them.
  • Encourage your children to watch a variety of programs: sports, nature and science shows, the arts, music and history shows. There’s a lot of great TV programming out there that makes learning about the world interesting and fun.
  • Consider the place of your TV set. When children are small, use the old adage ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ and keep the TV in a room away from where the family spends most of its time. When your kids get older, you might want it to be in a more visible place for easier monitoring. Never put a television set in a child’s bedroom!
  • Don’t leave your TV on when you’re not watching it. Turn it on for a specific show and turn it off again when the show is over. This makes television a special experience that your children will look forward to.
  • When your children’s friends come to visit, insist on some ‘no-TV’ time. Don’t be afraid to restrict viewing of certain shows, even if your children’s friends are allowed to watch them. You have the right to protect your children from inappropriate viewing and they will accept your concern as a sign of caring.
  • Make sure your kids know that it’s their right to say no to programs they find too frightening when visiting friends or relatives.
  • Tell the parents of your children’s friends about your television rules. It’s hard to control what your children see at other houses, but if parents talk about their TV rules with others, it’s easier to protect children from unsuitable programming.
  • Make sure your caregiver or sitter knows about, and follows your TV rules.
  • Try going without television for a few days to help you re-evaluate the role it plays in your family’s life. You can also join thousands of others and give up TV for a week during the annual TV Turnoff Week event (more information available online – www.media-awareness.ca )

A word they say is enough for the wise – well in this case one thousand, five hundred and eighty one words!

Joy Isa