How to choose appropriate TV for Tots

Today, whether or not infants and toddlers should watch television can be an issue almost as sensitive as religion.

Parents all over the world sit on both sides of the fence, some with very strong views on the matter.

It can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss with peers and to top it all off, until recently there has been very little information out there to help us independently determine our own position.

While the media is a highly influential element in the lives of most Australian children, many parents are still grappling with the most simple of questions, including what, when, and how often.

It is definitely within our sphere of influence as caregivers to guide media usage so that it helps rather than hinders our children's healthy development. If you are seeking practical answers to the above questions (and more), below are ten of our top tips to help you or your way.

Choosing an age-appropriate program and making viewing more beneficial for your toddler / infant:

  • Choose a program that is well suited to the age and developmental stage of your child. Think about what she is now taking meaningful interest in, whether it be exploring certain books or making certain sounds, dancing, repeating words, imitating expressions, turning handbags inside out......or simply manipulating food and examining it from every angle. Think about how long she is capable of comfortably giving her attention to these activities. Think also about how you adapt your own means of communication to cater to her stage of development and what messages and concepts you feel she is capable of following and understanding.

  • Be highly selective on ‘contents'. Many parents fail to take the time to think about the difference between television as it was when they were a child and television as it is today. This may lead them to believe that as they watched television freely as a child without adverse effect, the same will apply to their child. The difference, however, primarily lies in the nature of programs back then. By and large today's parents were brought up on wholesome and family oriented programs. Programs were commercial free and ‘special effects' was a term unknown.
    ‘Contents' can include program subject matter, images, characters, educational material, and character behaviour. Also relevant is whether what is happening is a close representation of reality or highly exaggerated and fictitious.

  • Be highly selective on ‘delivery'. Research has shown that television can boost a child's rate of learning although this depends not only on the contents of a program but how those contents are delivered to your child. A child will learn nothing from that which is presented too quickly for their individual stage of development. Worse still, research has indicated that this can pose a threat to a child's early brain development. Try to imagine the media experience through your child's eyes, not your own. An infant's mind processes material at an entirely different rate to an adult's mind.

  • Check to see whether the program is RVI-Free (free of rapid visual/video imaging and other sensory overload), particularly if your child is under the age of 30 months. If you do not have an RVI-Free program to hand, choose slower paced, quiet programs. Slower-paced viewing gives your child the time he needs to think about what he's watching and absorb the information presented. Lots of random or fast-paced sounds and actions can not only ‘mesmerise' but send a young brain into overload.

  • Remember to act as interested in and excited about your newly purchased program as you would with any new toy or activity. Before you make a bee-line for your half-completed household chores, try joining in on the program's activities or repeating sounds and actions. This will encourage your children to actively participate as well, particularly if you are weening them off the faster paced programs.

  • Be prepared to talk about the program. By watching television together, you can point out experiences that are familiar to your child and you can also learn how much they understand about the program. This can also help you develop your own set of criteria for when you next head out to buy a DVD.

  • Choose programs that are designed to encourage constructive thinking and involvement, and that are appropriately paced so as to provide your child with an opportunity to respond.

  • Limit the amount of television your child watches. If your child is under the age of 3, keep TV-watching to a minimum. Try to break program-watching up into slots of 10-15 minutes. More than that and his brain can go on autopilot. From 3 onwards, limit his viewing time to no more than an hour a day.

  • Promote TV watching as a treat, not a privilege. To avoid the usual objections that come with turning the television off, have a new and exciting activity in mind to divert your child's attention. A five-minute warning prior to pressing the ‘off' button will also help your toddler get ready for the next activity.

  • Extend the Television Experience. Media can be a powerful learning tool but it can't nurture and it can't replace real life experience or hands-on learning. Parents need to ensure a healthy balance of all early developmental activities for their children. These activities could however include discussing what your child might have learned from a program and reinforcing it in a real life context.

    Playing musical instruments, singing simple program songs, nursing teddies, drawing shapes, letters or numbers and saying (or singing) them out loud, or painting pictures are fun ways to extend the television experience with your children.

  • To avoid the possibility of accidentally exposing your child to violence on TV, try to choose DVD/video programs, rather than television. Children like to imitate what they learn and research suggests that children who watch violence on TV are more likely to display aggressive behaviour (this can include cartoons, as the very young are unable to appreciate the significance of ‘context' when it comes to ‘slapslick'). If your child is watching free-to-air or subscription television, be careful to monitor what is being watched.s

  • Remember that it is not until the age of around 5 or 6 that children are able to fully differentiate between fantasy and reality. There are some very good programs which will show the child elements of their world in a safe and non-threatening way. With try-out programs or television, it is helpful to a child if a caregiver can be present to comment on the ‘reality' of what the child is watching.

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Francesca Beatty is the founder of The Minimedia Initiative, a Sydney mother, and a researcher in children and the media. As a concerned parent and writer she takes a passionate interest in the particular focus area of toddlers and television. Francesca comes from a medical family background and has tertiary qualifications in psychology, sociology and the law. She is also the creative director and author of Minimedia Production's two new Australian DVDs for babies and toddlers: My Little Everyday ABC and My Little Choo Choo around the Zoo.