Saturday, 15 May 2010

Announcing: Quality tv - Apprentice meets Super Parent!

A newspaper reported last week:

Parents, beware CBeebies:
.. watching television makes toddlers fatter and stupider at primary school, according to new research.Scientists who tracked the progress of pre-school children found that the more television they watched aged two-and- a-half the worse they were at mathematics, the more junk food they ate, and the more they were bullied by other pupils.The findings, which support earlier evidence indicating television harms cognitive development, prompted calls for the Government to set limits on how much children should watch. American paediatricians advise that under-twos should not watch any television and that older children should view one-to-two hours a day at most. France has banned shows aimed at under-threes, and Australia recommends that three-to-five-year-olds watch no more than an hour a day. Britain has no official advice.

Take a moment or two to mull this over...

So, what do you think about that?

I am bemused, and a little confused. And yes, a little cross.

This is of no particular concern to me. I have managed to offer a range of amusements to the off-Spring that include occasional tv watching and thus far have not discerned any extraordinary evidence of junk food eating (another relative concept), victimisation or mathematical dysfunction. I may be speaking too soon. We are by no means out of the woods. Should any of them struggle in these areas though, perhaps I would be pleased to be able to blame it all on CBeebies. It would be preferable to thinking the kid was born dumb or a glutton for junk food, or that something I did or did not do, other than switch on the tv, was to blame.

Right now any such damage could be lying dormant, waiting to erupt and ruin their lives. Turning off the tv now would be shutting the gate after the horse has bolted. Thank goodness for the off-Spring and me, these findings have only now been published.  Admittedly, for the past 6 months we have enjoyed no tv viewing apart from a little bit of some alien oriented cartoon at a friend's house. The cold caller from British Telecom will be dining out this weekend on the fact that he tried to sell me their vision package only to be told we do not own a tv. He was silent for a few beats and then said "have you ever had a tv?". I said "oh yes - we are just exploring life without and so far it is all going quite well." Silence. 
"Well if you should decide to get a tv, maybe you should consider our great packages."
"Will do!"

Well not anymore Mister BT Vision. What if the study is wrong and the age for not watching tv is actually not 2, but 4 or 7 or 10 or late 30s? It would be a terrible shame if one's life was ruined so young by something so seemingly benign. And I am not defensive because off-Spring number 1 watched Finding Nemo every day for the first 6 weeks of his brother's life. Needs must, as they say. Sadly, he remembers so little of those times before he was 3, anyway.  In fact, I suspect as they get older much of life before 6 becomes a blurry half dream of teddies and long drives and bedtimes stories and grown ups talking about them ad nauseum. Who really recalls what they were up to at three? Also, if something is going to ruin your school years you would want at the very least to be able to remember it.

Before I get to the heart of today's post  - new concept for  a reality tv show - I just want to throw in my two cents worth on this topic.

My view, for what it is worth, is that the study sounds like cr-p for several reasons. Please note, I have not read it so I am only commenting on how the study was reported by the newspaper. But that must be ok, because the intent of the reporter and newspaper was not for us to run off and download the study and give it full and comprehensive analysis (are you kidding - in an age where these newspapers twitter and "feed" the news in 51 characters, there is no contemplation of detailed consideration occurring) - it was to sensationalise the issue of toddler tv viewing and scare a bunch of easily influenced, second guessing, trying very hard to do it all and to do it as well as they can, parents, into feeling guilty and harassed and switching the tv off and buying, or working harder to afford to buy, ever more stimulating entertainment for the little ones since the 42 inch flat screen is now responsible for the three biggest failings we can face as parents of small children. The dreaded trinity of being bullied, being no good at maths and eating too much junk food! 

This is just too much to bear! You see the tv was the fall-back, the saving grace. Sure the pesky little questions were always in the back of our mind - How much tv is too much? Should I watch with them and put off doing the ironing longer? Is Dora the Explorer good or bad? How many DVDs does a 4 year old need? But we consoled ourselves with providing age appropriate pseudo-educational programmes like Big Cook, Little Cook with colour and song and healthy food and even some maths thrown in. What else were we to do when the phone rang and the client needed a few minutes, or when the husband came in and just had to download his day straight away and the kids were screaming for attention, or when the little beggars were so overtired at 5 pm, so ready to beat each other senseless with the Meccano, so sick of not eating the play-dough and their dinner was still not made? Could we really have been expected to settle down with a good book or a grimy and wet and freezing walk to the park to slop around in puddles of mud and come home and fight until bath time?

But returning to the study. I want to know a few things. 

First, how old are the children they have tracked? How many, from where and what sort of home environments? What sort of diet have they had? How much discretionary spending did they enjoy and what were they watching at 2 and a half ? Also, what have they watched since? What exactly is JUNK food? How many kids did they study? Did the kids never watch tv apart from at 2? Was watching tv at 2 the sole distinguishing feature of the bullied dummies who ate junk food? What is too much tv? Who tells the truth about these things anyway - so how do they know what they really watched? Is it worse to be bullied than to be the bully? 

Seriously. How can they make these statements? What if it turns out that the kids in question have predominantly watched Sesame Street and the like; fun learning programmes that generations of toddlers were raised on? What if the junk food problem flows from underexposure to salty, sugary, artificial rubbish in their pre-school lives? What if they were spoiled rotten with electronic toys, too many activities or play dates and over-anxious parents who solved all their problems, played with them all day - apart from during tv time - and never enabled them to develop resilience or a capacity to amuse themselves. What if the bullied kids are more sensitive and regard the odd smiling tease from their best friend as intolerable?

I wonder if any of toddlers in the study were raised on a diet of Baby Einstein (have you watched any - so boring), Life on Earth or classical orchestras in concert? Of those who watched tv at 2, how many were underexposed to other developmentally challenging or interesting distractions/toys? Like an emptry box? Or a blade of grass? Or an old shampoo bottle?

In other words, what else was going on then and since? Of the tv addicts at 2 how many actually ate their tv dinner in front of the box while failing to learn how to count the chips on their plate? 

Also, show me a child in the "developed world" who does not love junk food and I will personally do a study on him! Chips, pizza, cup cakes and sweets (treats) are revered. Let he who is without junk food bribery guilt cast the first set top box.

However, even if there is a correlation between excessive tv viewing and challenges at school then perhaps the issue needs to be explored in more depth. 

Could it be that exposure to too much advertising is partly to blame for an interest in junk food, Barbies and fun parks? Perhaps too much time spent inert and passive contributes to the development of passive or reactive coping mechanisms. Perhaps tv watching children tend to be better at subjects other than maths - art, science or languages? Why did the study not highlight any of the great things tv can do for the child - like knowing all the colours really young or all the hits ever sung by Hi-5, or raising an awareness that there is a huge, amazing world beyond one's own house and street and nursery school?

Do you see what I am saying? This study raises a lot of questions.

Could it be one of those studies that is carried out in order to prove a point that is already presumed to be true. I hate to denigrate the survey writing people or "monkeys" as they are called on the internet - but most surveys ask a bunch of questions where the most accurate responses are simply not provided for. Have you ever seen a box for "well sometimes, but it just depends on the situation"? No. There you are. Perhaps these studies are skewed. 

Maybe I will do one of my own. I will ask all the parents I know to tell me how much time their children spend:
a) bickering;
b) fooling around;
c) making mess;
d) refusing to eat healthy balanced meals;
e) whining.

Oh gosh - I did not supply a category for "other" in my survey. Oh well, negligible, de minimis, won't worry about it as it might skew the results I need to get.

Perhaps I will come at this from a different angle. Rather than ask questions of parents, I could ask children. Oh no, if it were not confidential that might cause some problems.

Maybe the answer is tv after all. And the fame and fortune it offers. A test of mettle, perseverance and skill in a high stakes quest to find The Parent Extraordinaire (imagine the Apprentice meets Super Nanny meets Big Brother). 

The results may be staggering. 

Finally, returning to the study, why does Britain offer no official advice? Or are the British busy creating quality kids tv that teaches maths, social skills and healthy eating habits to the under fours?

And rather than ban tv for under 3s, why don't the French make watching it compulsory - is it not better to let everyone have the same chance to be hopeless? And why do those Aussies have to be so democratic. Surely 30 minutes of Bindy the Jungle Girl is not the same as 30 Minutes of MTV or the Wallabies live at Murrayfield?

And before I finish, could someone please commission a study into the impact of Youtube and facebook on these same children? 

Better go - need to catch my favourite show on demand and eat my daily fix of chocolate. It has to be better than being bullied on those discussion forums I follow.

Note to self - set some extra maths homework for the off-Spring.

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