Give Careful Thought to What Your Children Are Watching on TV

By Dr Randy Cale

As a Licensed Psychologist and Parenting Specialist, I am often speaking to parents about how to stop tantrums, and how to reduce aggression and anger in children.  I find myself repeatedly pointing to a growing trend in our culture, which helps to explain many issues which childhood anger, temper tantrums, violence and aggression.

This trend reflects a significant division between two categories of children.  Those
“under the spell” of their TV, and those children that aren’t.  For those children that aren’t caught by the spell of their TV, there are significantly less struggles with violence, anger and temper tantrums.  As time goes on, this group tends to watch an hour or so of TV per day, or less, and seem to have a focus on some combination of academic, recreational or social activities in a balanced manner.  These kids generally go forward through high school with relative success, happiness and a bright future.  (Note that this does not happen without parental intervention and guidance however.)

The second catergory of children are decidedly more at risk, in the early years of temper tantrums and anger.  This can escalate in the later years to more severe aggression and violence.  These children end up watching four or more hours of TV, or video, per day.  This second category of kids are consumed with passive entertainment and spend inordinate amounts of time either looking at a electronic box, playing with a box, or communicating through a box,

The nature of this passive entertainment is problematic in many ways.  First, these kids are not exercising their bodies in any way.  Secondly, they are not exercising their minds, except in a very narrow fashion.  Third, they are exposed to an inordinate amount of external advertising, and thus their interests and desires are shaped more by the media than by family values.

Finally, what they’re watching and doing is not monitored as carefully.  I recently interviewed an eleven year old boy who appeared fatigued at our nine o’clock appointment.  He explained that he was up playing video games until five am.  His mother was in the waiting area and when I spoke with her about this, she explained that she thought he had gone to bed.  However, we quickly learned that this child had regularly stayed up till three to five am in the morning, and always had difficulty getting up for school and was falling asleep in school.  In fact he was being evaluated for having a disorder, which had nothing to do with his psychological functioning, but had only do to with his unhealthy habits.

Now this example may sound absurd to many of you.  However, I can assure you that it’s not that absurd.  Children who become addicted will go to bed, and get up on their own.  Teenagers will cut off the computer and say goodnight, and you’ll find them IM’ing at two am on their laptop.  Your kids will cut off the light and they’ll be talking on their cell phone to their friends at one thirty.  Your son maybe watching TV in the basement, and assuring you that he’s watching Nickelodeon while he’s really watching HBO rerun of Sopranos.  Your daughter assures you that she only downloads parent approved music on her ipod, and you discover that she’s listening to the most antisocial, violent music you could ever imagine.

When allowed untethered access, the Internet is a world where your children can get access to anything you can imagine.  While I find very few parents would drop their twelve year old off on the street in New York City, I find many parents allow their twelve year olds access to computers, TV and video games without much thought about the consequence.

The consequences are devastating, and becoming more apparent.  The problems occur in several ways.

  1. Too much of it.
  2. The research clearly suggests that excessive amounts of TV, video, or computer gaming has a negative affect. It pulls kids away from more active forms of entertainment and engagement, including sports, academics, and social relationships.

  3. It’s designed to be addictive.
  4. These are the smartest people on the planet designing games that are supposed to be addictive. Most parents don’t think about this. I encourage you to consider it carefully.

    They’re engaged in a form of entertainment, which is designed to suck them into more and more of the same.without a measurable positive result.

  5. Violent themes are infused everywhere.
  6. Whether its cartoons, regular programming, or video games, there are violent themes in most programming. For some, this is not the case.

    But for the programs that will appeal to your emerging teenager, you’ll find that the violent themes have an overwhelming appeal, particularly for boys.

    Once again, the research is becoming more clear. Kids who become obsessed with such video games, tend to have a shorter fuse, display more disrespect, have more problems at school and are willing to act out on their aggression more often.

  7. Excessive involvement with the box interferes with all forms of life’s success.
  8. Regardless of your value system and what you desire for your kids, you’ll find they’re growing obsession with entertainment from a box will have little relationship to their future success. I hear many parents say while my child will grow up to be a programmer. This is rubbish! You become a programmer when you become interested in how things work, not just in playing with them. You have to understand mathematics, systems of logic, and hone your thought processes in a disciplined manner. None of that occurs by playing video games.

    Bottom line: set limits, and do so assetively. By setting limits, I mean make certain that your kids are watching not more than an hour or so of TV, and not playing more than a half hour or so of video games. Let them complain for a while. If they complain, let them know that you’ll throw out the video games.

    Be willing to take a strong stance on this issue, and teach limits by consequences not threatening words. In other words, if the hour is up, and your boys are still watching TV, you cut off the TV. Also let them know that if you cut it off, it’s going to be off for the next two days. Then stand by your decision.

    You do this a couple of times, and they’ll learn to respect the limits that you set.

  9. The addictive nature means that things get worse over time.
  10. While it is clear that exposure to violence increases aggression and temper tantrums in small children, it is equally clear that these negative consequences escalate for many children, especially boys, over time. Because you don’t see the negative outcomes right now, it doesn’t mean that the effect is not there.

    Bottom line: Too much is unhealthy. Be willing to set limits.

    And particularly if your young child is having behavioral problems with violence, tantrums and other acting out, I strongly recommend that you set tight limits on exposure and then notice what happens. This is not the only change you will need to make if you have a child who throws temper tantrums and is angry and aggressive, but it is a start in the right direction!

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