Ah, the television. Every mother’s fickle friend. The telly is such an innocent object for non-parents; once upon a time, a simple source of distraction, fun and entertainment, you bring home a baby and that innocent black box suddenly becomes an unpredictable monster, loaded with secret messages and influences, populated by weirdoes and gangsters waiting to drag your tot into a life of crime. That or Balamory, which could quite possibly be worse, as anyone who is familiar with Miss Hoolie will confirm.
It was a usual weekday afternoon, just hitting that blood-sugar-slump time of 4.30pm, when I realised I might have a problem on my hands. A normal day: kids tired from school, homework done, chilly outside, mum done in, so what do we do? We watch T.V. I prop my eyelids open with matchsticks and play with Squidget whilst the other two watch the box. I generally shove them full of fruit at this time, which reassures me in some small way that I’m not an entirely slovenly mother. They might be stunting their brain cells with televisual cr*p, but at least they’re getting their five a day, eh? It pretty much revolves around the same programmes and this was when I saw what we had slipped into. During the break, Goldilocks was able and very willing to sing along to a car insurance ad (she knew all the words) and, when the programme restarted, Tweenager uttered the immortal words, “I love this bit” – she had seen the episode before. I realised that so had I, and I knew what was coming next, too and, yes, it was funny, but that wasn’t really the point now, was it?
Addiction in children is a terrible thing, especially when their drug of choice is purple and fluffy and, to all intents and purposes, totally harmless. From Blue Peter to Teletubbies, Totally Spies to Spongebob Squarepants, via The Simpsons and Raven, my kids love television. Or rather, I wonder if they have instead learned to love television. Tweenager has always been a square-eyes. It used to be a running joke that she could sit in front of a screen for days and wouldn’t know if the house burned down around her. She loved T.V. but, as an only child, her viewing was tightly controlled. I watched with her, all the while quietly ruing the demise of Rentaghost and Saturday Superstore. Nonetheless, we discussed the violence of Tom and Jerry and analysed the motivations of Maisy Mouse, all the while wondering whether or not the Tweenies were of sufficient educational content. Television played a small role in an otherwise busy schedule of reading, playing and painting. I saw it as my duty to get on the floor and play Barbies, no matter how much she insulted my feminist tendencies. Then Goldilocks came along and then Squidget and what was once the box in the corner became a free and welcome babysitter.
If the data is to be believed, we should all quit whilst we are relatively ahead and throw our televisions out of the window. In a year, the average child spends 900 hours at school and nearly 1,023 hours in front of a TV. The average American child will witness 200,000 violent acts on television by the age of 18. 57% of all programming contains ‘psychologically disturbing’ acts of violence. The list goes on. And on. Sitting in front of a gogglebox turns our kids into socially inept fatties with warped life values and, worse, a penchant for reality T.V. and Dale Winton. But does it? Of course not. Too much of anything isn’t great; sticking your kid in front of four hours a day of the most educational, edifying nature programmes is going to result in nothing more than an antisocial child, expert in the breeding habits of the yak. So, what’s the alternative? You guessed it, it’s time, your time to be precise. Kids need supervising a lot more than we realise and television, even the most rubbish television, is fine, if that’s all it is. When mum has had 4 hours sleep, the T.V. can seem like her new best friend when the thought of arts and crafts leaves her reaching for the Valium. I understand now that when television becomes a substitute for something else, that’s when it is a problem. When it starts to replace attention, bedtime stories, fun – that’s when the box should be put out to pasture.
I’ll let you into a little secret. You see, I’m a bit biased and probably haven’t done my kids any favours because I actually love watching television, too. I actually have a rather worrying affection for the genius that is Spongebob Squarepants. EastEnders, Top Gear, Casualty, I love them all. Nothing beats that feeling of settling down to watch something you enjoy, switching off daily life for a while and getting stuck into a good programme (and I stress the good – we’re not talking Tricia here). After a long day at work, would you rather relax and dumb things down a bit or do a spot of spring cleaning followed by a few chapters of Crime and Punishment? I rest my case.