Yes, the nanny state is right
Deep down, you know it's true: television is not good for your child.
  by Jemima Lewis, 17 October, 2009
  Children watching television Photo: GETTY
Nothing makes parents crosser than being ticked off for something we already feel vaguely guilty about. So the news that the Australian government is thinking – just thinking, mind, and on the other side of the world – of introducing guidelines on how much television children should be allowed to watch has caused waves of defensive fury to wash up even in our distant hemisphere.
The guidelines, part of a government effort to reduce childhood obesity, are aimed primarily at childcare centres, but intended also as "advice" for parents. Devised by researchers from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, they suggest that children under two should not watch any television at all, while those between two and five should be restricted to one hour. Much more than that, say the docs, and you risk stunting your child's language development, damaging his powers of concentration, and setting him up to become a couch potato.
On the parental blogosphere, you can almost hear the hackles rising. The outraged response takes three main expressions. First: how dare the government (any government) tell me how to raise my child? Second: I spent most of my childhood watching Sesame Street and it didn't do me any harm. And third: just you try looking after a household of screaming tykes all day without resorting to the electronic babysitter for long enough to get dressed and have a cup of tea.
All of which – as a libertarian and a tired, weak-willed, square-eyed mother – I find highly sympathetic. But deep down, you and I both know that the Australian government is right. Just because a truth is inconvenient and faintly insulting, doesn't make it any less true. Consider this: would you pay a nanny to plonk your infant in front of Spongebob Squarepants for an hour or two while she phones her friends and does some online shopping? Might you not feel that you, and Little Timmy, were being somewhat short-changed? And if we expect better of those who act in loco parentis, why not of ourselves, the actual parents?
Most of us instinctively know what countless surveys have confirmed: that children need real activities and experiences in order to thrive – not two-dimensional set-pieces filtered through a screen. They need to be running around, treading in dog's messes, getting into punch-ups with other children, smearing poster paints into the soft furnishings and falling out of trees.
We know this, but we can't quite summon the energy to follow through with it. Instead, British children spend an average of five hours and 20 minutes a day in front of a screen. Even in those lentil-weaving, middle-class homes that don't have a television set, there are computers; and rare indeed is the lentil-weaver who has never slipped an allegedly educational DVD into the laptop in order to buy herself half an hour's peace.
In truth, she probably doesn't have much to feel guilty about. The link between television watching and cognitive delay has been shown to virtually disappear in well-educated families. As long as children are read to and given plenty of one-on-one time with adults, a spot of Dora the Explorer shouldn't wreak too much havoc on the synapses.
Nevertheless, we do feel guilty about it – even those of us who conscientiously ration our children's screen-time. In part, this is because even a short blast of television is an admission of parental defeat. It means you are tired of telling stories in an excited, squeaky voice; tired of drawing cats and trains to order; tired of going round and round the garden like a teddy bear; tired of the whining and the hitting and the hysterical lamentations; tired, however temporarily, of your child.
It's not really that you have too much to do – your great-grandmother managed it at the same time as polishing her brass and turning her mangle, for heaven's sake, and she didn't have so much as a crystal set to relieve the tedium. It's just that television allows you to do what she couldn't: run away from your responsibilities, without ever leaving the sofa.
....and you can always end 'em with picture book.
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