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January 11th, 2013

The recent speculation on the impact of television screen time on children has been well documented, with doctors suggesting that it could be responsible for everything from obesity and type 2 diabetes to attention problems and psychological difficulties. There has also been some suggestion that watching screens, whether television or computer screens, can trigger the release of dopamine in a child’s brain, resulting in a screen dependency later in life. Terrestrial television aimed at under-threes has already been banned in France, and Australia and Canada have strict guidelines in this area. Despite this, there are very few parents in the UK that don’t resort to television at some point during the day to keep their children occupied for a few minutes while they make that all important phone call, or take a quick shower, so are there any benefits to our children watching television and can they learn anything from it? Can Children Learn from TV? In order to learn from television programmes, your child needs to understand that the television screen represents the real world that they live in, and this is not usually possible until they reach the age of two. After this age, television can be useful when watched with an adult, as the child can learn by making links between words or objects on screen and the sounds that they hear, when guided by their parent or carer. Educational, age appropriate television programmes, as well as computer based activities, can help children to learn social skills such as how to interact with their friends, as well as academic skills such as letters and numbers. As far back as the 1970s it was shown that children who watched Sesame Street had a better understanding of the alphabet, shapes, parts of the body, and numbers than children who did not. Watching and discussing these programmes with an adult makes them far more effective as a learning tool than simply watching by themselves. When you’re choosing an educational TV show for your child to watch, look for certain key characteristics.  An educational programme should:

  • Engage children with the use of games and appropriate humour
  • Choose topics that are age appropriate and relevant to children’s lives
  • Deliver material using language that is easy to understand
  • Make educational content central to the plot of the show and not a sideline
  • Focus on a single repeated concept or idea per episode
  • Encourage children to interact, perhaps by answering a question before the characters
  • Motivate children to carry what they have learned into non TV based activities

How Much TV Time is Safe? Current thinking suggests that children should not routinely watch TV screens until they are over three years old. They will learn more from helping and watching adults do everyday tasks such as tidying and cleaning, laundry and cooking. Dr. Aric Sigman, who has written a paper on the subject for the British Medical Journal, recommends that children between the ages of three and seven only watch half an hour of TV a day, that children between seven and twelve only have an hour of screen time each day, and that children between twelve and fifteen have a maximum of one and a half hours of television time per day.

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