As a mom I'm pretty strict about TV -- as evidenced by the drawing my son did for a kindergarten Mother's Day project (a book of drawings in which, on another page, he said that I am as pretty as his sister's cat).
We have a lot of rules in our house about TV. There are limits as to how much TV the kids can watch -- and limits on the shows they can watch. There are no TVs in the bedrooms. It's supposed to be off completely on school days unless there are special circumstances ... and school days are when they sneak to watch, leading to circumstances like the one Liam drew.
As a pediatrician, I have my reasons for the rules. Watching TV for more than two hours a day raises the risk of obesity. Fast-paced TV shows like SpongeBob (one of Liam's favorites) interfere with executive function, which are crucial behavioral skills. Exposure to violence can increase aggression, and exposure to sexualized media can lead to kids having sex earlier. Better to just shut the gosh-darned thing off.
That's pretty much the messaging at most doctors' offices, including mine: TV is bad for you. The parents who keep it off are better parents (and those parents are very quick to agree). But here and there, I can't help wondering if we might be missing the point.
The thing is, TV isn't intrinsically bad. There is some good programming -- my husband is a Discovery Channel and History Channel junkie, and we've all learned things from watching them. Even when it's not necessarily educational programming, it can be fun and funny -- as a family, we've got a bunch of favorite SpongeBob scenes, and everyone likes The Daily Show. We have some nice family time watching TV, like movie night on Friday, or when my daughters and I watch Glee together. I really enjoyed TV as a kid -- I watched a lot of Brady Bunch, Mod Squad, Partridge Family and other such (silly) shows, and somehow made it to medical school.
And -- let's get real -- it can be very convenient sometimes. I know we're supposed to have our kids come cook with us or help us with chores instead of turning on the TV, but I don't always want my kids close to knives or the hot stove and it doesn't always work out when they fold and sort laundry. And on occasion, I need to make a truly uninterrupted phone call (they always seem to need me more when I'm on the phone than when I'm not). Turning on the TV for half an hour can sometimes make everything much more pleasant for everyone.
Don't get me wrong. I think it's scary that the average US kid spends at least 4 hours a day in front of a television set, some of them much more. Like I said, it's contributing to childhood obesity, and some of the shows they are watching just aren't good for their brain development or mental health.
But it's not TV itself that is the problem -- it's what they watch and what they don't do instead that is the problem. Lots of things in our kids' lives can be bad for them -- nearly everything can be a danger, if overdone or done improperly. Even the things we think of as healthy, like riding bikes (accidents happen) or playing sports (overuse injuries are on the rise) have their downsides. The point we sometimes miss is that with everything, moderation and thoughtfulness are key.
It's lives as a whole that matter. That's the lesson we all need to learn. If we focus too much on one thing without looking at everything else children do, and how they do it, we are going to miss important opportunities to make a difference.
I'm not saying that I'm necessarily going to loosen the rules in our house. Like I said, I have my reasons. But with every year I spend as a parent and a doctor I gain more of what is often hardest to have as either one: perspective. With every year, I realize a bit more that sometimes I just need to get over myself.
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire