Is television bad for kids? No more so than the theatre

I grew up without a TV, and don't think cold turkey did me any good

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The Independent Online

Hello, and welcome to another story from Planet Obvious. Today, it’s that old demonic favourite, the Gogglebox. No, not the wildly hilarious show, of which more anon, but the television itself.

Watching too much of it is – guess what? – bad for children. A new study published by an academic in the States, (not a place overtly famous for turning off your television and doing something more interesting instead), shows that the less time kids spend in front of the electronic babysitter, the more healthy they are, and the better they do at school.

Well, knock me down with a copy of TV Quick.

The study goes on to say that “increased monitoring” by parents reduced children’s total screen time, resulting in them doing better in school. Can we suggest that “increased monitoring” means, effectively, paying more attention to your children? I think we could.

Because it’s not television per se which is bad for your children, is it, really? I don’t see anything actually immoral about Game of Thrones, The Secrets of Bones, The Voice, Friends and Mythbusters, to name some of my children’s favourite shows. It’s more the fact that if you leave children vegetating in front of the box for hours on end, they won’t do their homework. Well, I don’t need a survey from Iowa State University, to tell me this, since I have evidence of it playing out in my own home every day.

If I leave my children sitting in front of any one of our TV sets (yes, we have more than one, and no, they are not in the kids’ bedrooms), watching How I Met Your Mother, or back-to-back episodes of Futurama, they won’t do their homework. And they might be grumpy. And they might miss out on meals, which means they might then snack on crisps and chocolate, which might make them unhealthy. It can happen.

But more often than not, they don’t have a chance to do this because I, like many other parents, endlessly cajole them to complete a daily itinerary of improving tasks including finishing homework, practising the piano, walking the dog, playing the violin, going to swim squad,  and so on. And of course alongside this you must achieve your own litany of tasks with your children, including reading to them, listening to them read to you, building a bridge out of straws, concocting an outfit for World Book Day, making an Easter bonnet, creating brownies for the class cake sale and so on. It’s what you do as a parent these days.

In fact my own parents, who wouldn’t have known what a class cake sale was it if fell on their heads, are forever nagging on at me to stop helicoptering my lot and leave them slumped in front of the TV. Which is interesting, since they were founder members of that weird 80s faction known as We Don’t Have A Television. Was it improving? No. It was dreadful. All those Friday mornings at school after Duran Duran played Top of the Pops. I still have to imply that I know the “Rio” video. And Grange Hill. And The Young Ones. Have there been any other side-effects? Did I achieve better grades than my peers? Was I less grumpy? I don’t think so.

Yet interestingly, and perhaps as a result of our 20-year televisual domestic famine, my three siblings still see the box as somehow morally awry. A dangerous thing to have in the household. As if theatre, cinema or art galleries are actually more uplifting places to be, no matter what the programming may be. I have never seen a survey suggesting that if children go to the theatre all the time and eat ice cream, there is a danger they will become obese and stupid. Yet is the West End more intellectually engaging than British television? Discuss, with reference to Harry Hill’s new musical I Can’t Sing, which is based on television talent shows.

Indeed, certainly compared to the other media offerings which entrance our kids, television offers a rather old-fashioned, delightfully communal experience for adults and children alike. I love clambering on to my bed with my brood where we can all have a laugh watching Crufts, or some nature show, or the glorious Gogglebox, itself a paean to the badinage which comes when watching TV with your siblings, your lover or your best friend. I certainly think that sort of interaction is a lot healthier for families than parents furiously watching their offspring texting at the dinner table during mealtimes.