TV & electronic media: unplugging the kids

We recently attended a school event on parenting.  One of the topics was close to my heart : kids & the negative effects of electronics.

Most people know in their gut that their kids probably shouldn’t watch TV, or use electronic devices.  Parents justify the use of electronics for many reasons.  In our family, we use the television as a tool to avoid conflicts between tired siblings after school, to allow us to get dinner on the table, and as a method for downtime on the weekends.  Mostly, the TV or other electronic devices keep our kids still, quiet and engrossed so we adults can get into “efficiency mode” and get something done without interruptions.

My husband and I know that using the TV as a tool for our own benefit isn’t the best choice for our kids.  Letting our 3 and 5 year-old watch TV feels easier than the alternative, which is to turn off the TV and engage with them while also preparing a meal at the end of a busy day.   As a Montessori parent, this feels a little hypocritical.  I’m fully aware that creating an environment where the kids are encouraged to help is the right thing to do (see post on “teaching them to do it themselves” here).   At times in our house, the TV has become our easy way out, the lazy path, the path of least resistance; call it what you will.

Turning on the TV is an effective way for us to get something done around the house, especially on school days when the kids come home tired and cranky.

In our home, we’ve been talking on and off for a while about eliminating screen time for our children.  My husband says that eliminating screen time for the kids, but keeping it for us is hypocritical.  After all, aren’t we actively screening the kids’ shows and programs for educational content and eliminating commercials?  I am very motivated to pull the plug(s), but know I really need my husband to have my back.  I can’t do it alone. We really need a united front to do it correctly and consistently.

Luckily, my husband and I were able to attend the parenting session at school together.  We were given the information on the negative effects of screen time for children and we both came to the same conclusions.  Afterwards, we decided to eliminate screen time for the kids immediately. Here are the top five reasons why we were empowered to go cold turkey and make this change in our home:

1.   Language Development.

Kids, especially young children, learn by actively communicating with others.  Studies prove that listening to spoken language on an electronic device does not substitute for the real thing.   Just like I can’t become an accomplished chef by watching cooking shows, children cannot master language by hearing it on TV or manipulating a computer program.   The family is the main source and model for language development.  It is through everyday interactions and activities the child absorbs the language and dialect that is spoken.   If real interactions and experiences are replaced with time in front of a TV or other gadget, the rate of absorption and language development will be adversely effected or diminished.

We had been justifying the use of a TV show with hopes that it would help reinforce or accelerate learning of Spanish vocabulary. We were just fooling ourselves.  TV programs are not equivalent to, or even a supplement for, face-to-face experiences with a Spanish speaker.

Often times younger siblings are exposed to TV or electronic devices at an earlier age because an older sibling is allowed to use them. This is the case in our home.  For the very reasons discussed above regarding language development, we waited until our first child was two before we introduced television.  On the other hand, our second child was watching TV just after his first birthday.  Allowing electronic use for one child but not the other seems nearly impossible. So, we let them both watch.  In hindsight, what we could have done was never introduced TV in the first place, or we could have eliminated TV once our second child was born.

2.  The Narcotic Effect.

TV and other electronic devices have an addictive quality.  The state of mind of a child when watching TV, regardless of content,  has been compared to a drugged state.   A child observed in front of the TV might have a glazed or vacant look, a trance-like expression, a slightly open mouth. The child seems to have shut down.  There is very little indication that the mind is alert.

This perceived “peace and quiet” has a direct impact on a child’s developing mind.

The rapid-fire imagery is linked to development of short attention spans in young children.    It often leads to older kids equating learning with entertainment. When the device is turned off, some children have issues with “re-entry” back into the ‘real’ world.  This could include crankiness, an inability to control themselves, or an inability to know what to do next.  The time spent in front of the TV expends no energy and does not encourage freedom of thought or movement.  When the child re-enters, they have a store of excess energy that has to be expelled.

This really hit home for us.  We turn on the TV, the kids go mute, still, absent.   Upon turning it off, the kids would get angry, even aggressive, and full of misplaced energy.  We now understand why after watching TV, we weren’t able to keep them in their seats for dinner.  Of course! They’d just spent 30 minutes or an hour building up energy while sitting still in front of the TV, and then we ask them to sit still at the dinner table for another stretch.  They had energy reserves to burn.  What they really needed was real activity before the meal.  By turning off the TV, we could have children who get more mental and physical activity and we all could have a more peaceful mealtime together.  It’s a win/win.

3. No opportunity for non-verbal cognition.

Young children learn through exploration, manipulation, logical thinking and repetition.  This is called non-verbal cognition.  Through hands-on experiences children learn about and develop their own thoughts and feelings about their world.   Adults can use TV and computers as a method of relaxation because we’ve already had plenty of real-world experiences.  Kids are still experiencing and learning about the world around them. They don’t, and can’t, use electronic devices in the same way an adult does.

Children have a need for constant mental activity.  It’s how their brains and bodies develop.  Kids need opportunities to experience their environment and to learn about the world through activity and repetition.  TV and other devices do not allow children to form thoughts and feelings or to experience anything tangible.  Thoughts and feelings are spelled out to them.  Experiences are played out for them, in rapid-fire, with no opportunities for free choice, exploration, or thought.  All of this is absorbed by the young child and becomes a part of their definition of the world.

When the last thing my two-year old son talks to me about before bedtime are the experiences of a character he saw on TV, I know something is amiss.   Not only does he think this TV character is real, but the character’s activities are more interesting and memorable to him than his own.  He can repeat word-for-word the dialogue from the program and mimic exactly the vocabulary and intonation.  This vocabulary is internalized and reemerges as his own vernacular.  This is powerful and disturbing:  my child is not relaxing in front of the TV.   He is absorbing the silly, wacky, unrealistic experiences of a made-up character and those experiences are emerging as realities in my son’s way of being.    TV is very powerful.  TV is real for young children.  The made-up words and phrases are real to them.  The settings and even the unhuman characters are real to them.

Very young children cannot yet tell the difference between what’s real and what’s made-up.  They believe everything is real.  As parents, we must be very aware of the impact TV has on our children, no matter how ‘educational’.

Our decision to turn an electronic device on has to be a conscious one, rather than one of convenience.

4.  TV or educational “apps” are not a substitute for education.

It is true that some content is intended to be educational and that some programs can support learning.  Parents tend to fool themselves into thinking that if their child is using an educational computer program, or watching an educational program on TV that it’s going to make their child more intelligent.  Or at a more basic level that an educational program is at least better than a non-educational alternative.   Kids may learn something from an educational program, but the truth is that the TV and computers are not a substitute for real experiences.  They are not a substitute for actively discussing a subject, analyzing what is read or heard, understanding the causes and effects, or participating in hands-on learning activities.

We convinced ourselves that the educational programs and applications we selected for our kids were a supplement to what they were learning.

The truth is, without actively participating in or watching the program together with our child, that they really aren’t getting anything educational out of it.

As parents we needed to be there to discuss the material or concepts, to encourage questions, and to connect the information with similar events or issues specific to our community.

5.  No control over content.

TV is full of violent, commercially driven content.  Parents have no control over content, over commercial messaging, over violent content, or stereotyping.   We know that ratings and advertising determines content, not quality.

We try very hard to limit the amount of advertising our children are exposed to.  However, we don’t have time to pre-screen every show or every app our child will want to watch or use.  Even if we limit the number of programs, we have no control over the messaging, messages about gender or race, or level of violence however benignly presented.   When we invite our kids to do things with us, we get a level of control that the TV does not offer.  We can seize opportunities to discuss issues of gender, race, ethics, violence and morality.


After learning all this, we did it. That very night.  We eliminated screen time for our kids.

How did we do it?  It was surprisingly easy.  It was easy because our kids happily chose the alternatives.  Some say when given a choice between TV time and quality time with a parent, children choose to spend time with the parent every time.   While this may not be the case for everyone, it certainly is true for our family.  After school, instead of firing up the TV, we create opportunities for them to help in the kitchen with meal preparation, suggest activities for active play, and make opportunities for quiet time on days when they’re run down.  We have given our kids non-electronic choices and more family time.  This makes everyone happy.

It is true that these alternative options require preparation on our part to prepare the kitchen so the kids can help or to think of a few active play options before the end of the school day so that we are ready for them when they come home.  That is a shift in our daily routine, maybe requiring an extra 20 or 30 minutes a day.  It was an amazingly smooth transition that happened literally overnight.

In the few weeks following, our son asked a few times to watch TV.  We redirected him to another activity, and just like that, he forgot about it.  Our daughter has never asked once about the TV.   She has focused her attention on other things.  She’s learning checkers, chess, backgammon, and other board games.  Both kids are getting a lot more time outside together after school.   They both enjoy helping prepare meals.  Since we’ve gotten the kitchen more organized for them, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at how their help actually makes getting dinner on the table faster.

Our children have been screen-free since late August. No TV. No iPad. No screens of any kind at home.   In the afternoons, they help make dinner.  If they don’t feel in the right frame of mind, they play together instead.  Some days are easy.  Some days when we feel short on time, are more difficult.  Ultimately, we don’t feel like we’re suffering without the “help” of the TV and the kids don’t show any signs of missing it either.   We’re all doing new things, learning new things, and we have more time with one another.  We’re all better off for having made this decision.  As parents, we were fairly pleased with ourselves.

I realize now that it’s our children who deserve the bulk of the credit.   We created the situation to begin with, and our kids made it easy for us to fix our mistake.

We know that our kids will be exposed to TV and computers.  We’re not saying that they’ll never, ever see them or never, ever be allowed to use them.  Electronics are everywhere and are an integrated part of our culture.  For now, electronics are special occasion, special privilege devices in our home.  As they get older, their privileges and responsibilities with regards to electronics will grow along with them.

There have been many studies on the effects of TV and electronics on children.  Most reinforce that these devices when used consistently by children have a negative impact on brain development.  Knowing this, many parents are looking for a solution that allows a reasonable use of electronics while also taking into account what is best for their child’s development.  An online article titled The Effects of Electronic Media on the Developing Brain, by Robert Sylwester (Professor Emeritus, College of Education, University of Oregon at Eugene) wrote something I found particularly insightful:

“…Children who mature in a secure home/school with parents/teachers who explore all of the dimensions of humanity in a non-hurried accepting atmosphere can probably handle most electronic media without damaging their dual memory and response systems. They’ll tend to delay their responses, to look below the shiny surface of things. Further, they’ll probably also prefer to spend much more of their time in direct interactions with real live people. They will thus develop the sense of balance that permits them to be a part of the real and electronic worlds — but also to stand apart from them.”

There is a place for the TV and other electronics in our homes.  Allowing children to use them requires parents to be mindful in determining what is appropriate based on age and stage of development.  For our young kids, eliminating screen time is what we feel is best at the moment.  I know that this may sound really hard or even extreme.  For most people I would venture to guess that TV watching is a habit.  Like any habit, this one can be broken with a little effort.   We thought eliminating TV and electronics was going to be a brutal process.  We mentally prepared for the the worst.  Our children showed us just how easy it can be.


2 responses to “TV & electronic media: unplugging the kids

  1. I ❤ Montessori and I love this article! I have been presenting on this topic since 2010 and 'Montessori Life' published an article I wrote based on that presentation last year. I couldn't agree more with your piece and hope that as parents become more educated on its effects, technology will take a permanent backseat to the more important ways children learn– from real experiences with the people that love them. 🙂

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