For a lot of today’s children, real life is something to be squeezed in between episodes of Power Rangers or the next level on Tomb Raider or Medal of Honour. With over half of Irish TV homes having two or more televisions and three in 10 TV homes having games consoles, according to AGB Nielsen Media Research, there’s a lot of screen watching going on around the country.
“If you shy away from grouping television and computer games together, because one is interactive and one is passive, you’re deceiving yourself because they’re both sedentary,” said Teresa Orange, co-author with Louise O’Flynn of The Media Diet for Kids, a parent’s survival guide to TV and computer games.
The authors have dubbed the twin towers of TV and computer games as ‘screen entertainment’. “The screen presents stimuli in a constrained way, so it constrains a child’s mind,” said Teresa, a mother herself and professional children’s researcher. “Everything is presented in bite-sized nuggets, so children can’t process longer trains of thought”, a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the deluge of homework the nation’s children are just facing into now that school is back on the agenda.
According to the authors, the average 11-15-year-old spends 53 hours a week in front of the screen – whether it’s watching TV, videos or DVD, playing computers or just being online. This compares with 38 hours a week in 1994. It means that the average child is now spending more than seven-and-a-half hours in front of the screen every day. And the majority of children spend more time watching TV than actually learning at school. In Ireland, 14 per cent of the viewing population is aged 4-14 years-old, with viewing increasing steadily from September on, peaking in January and falling slowly until August.
So what’s all this doing to the nation’s children? That addiction to computer games is often a parent’s motivation to do something. Computer games are more addictive when a child is younger, and having to have the most up-to-date game can foster a sense of competition with peers. This can lead to consumerism, which all feeds into the panic surrounding the acquisition of the latest mobile phone, fashion, accessories …
“Computer games become more of a monster for parents and they’re harder to control,” said Teresa Orange. “They’re designed to be addictive. Once you get to one level, you want to go on to the next one, so that even while you’re doing your homework, getting to that next level distracts you.”
And, very often, it’s mostly boys who are vulnerable to the lure of computer games. “Some boys are quite good at having a single focus, whether that’s listening to a story or being quite content to sit doing nothing but watching a screen for three or four hours,” she said, adding that young girls have more of a butterfly character and are unable to maintain that single focus that long. But, the computer games companies are ahead of them, with Sims games specifically designed for girls. In fact, one-quarter of gamers in the EU are female.
And what of the content of what your child is watching? How many parents simply turn on the TV or games console for their children and walk away? According to a report on Cork-Kerry studies, Our Children…their future…why weight?, one in three young children have television sets in their bedroom where, presumably, they watch programmes or play games unsupervised.
“If you allow your child to develop his morals from the screen, bad values become normalised because of the sheer quantity of what they’re watching,” said Teresa, advising parents to establish who the screen role models are and question whether you’re happy with their values.”
Children aren’t learning communication skills. They’re learning to ‘shush’ but they may not learn to talk openly. Equally, parents won’t know what’s going on if they’re watching TV and they miss that eye-to-eye contact with their child, a particularly pertinent point given that one-third of families eat their weekday meals while watching TV, according to the Cork-Kerry report.
And in an era when the TV supercedes almost everything else, including courtesy to visitors, children get the message that whatever’s on TV is more important than anything else.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT
Read more in The Media Diet for Kids, by authors Teresa Orange and Louise O’Flynn
You can pick up a copy at SpellCheckBooks’ online shop here!
First published: Irish Examiner