Toxic Television- Pt. 1- What Is Your Toddler Watching?

Do you know what your kids are watching? I mean, REALLY know?  Have you ever thought about how the shows they watch will effect them in their daily lives, interactions with other kids, their environments or adults, even with you?  Or are you more the, “it’s just TV, that doesn’t effect them” type of person?

I entitled this series “Toxic Television”, and I chose that title for a reason.  Things that are toxic get under our skin and slowly eat away at us, filling us with poison and breaking down our foundation.  This is true of an actual, physical toxin and equally true of influences.  We call negative friends “toxic” we call abusive relationships “toxic” and we call jobs that harm our ability to move forward “toxic”.

So what is “toxic television”?  In my opinion, anything that breaks down the moral/ethical foundation a parent attempts to build for their children in the home.

Hypothetically, we all know that we aught to be careful of young minds and television, or any influence for that matter.  It is a concept that has been ground into our brains since WE were all children, so it’s nothing new.  But in action as parents, do we really take the time we need to, to screen these programs, games and movies to ensure young minds are being enriched and not broken down?  Do we filter?

I know many of us say we do, many of us WANT to, but many more parents actually don’t give it all that much thought and as I’ve learned recently, it’s actually one of those lovely “mommy wars” topics because many moms don’t think it’s a big deal and think anyone who is cautious about programming influences is basically just being over-protective and silly, while those who do monitor and screen shows tend to think those other moms are just irresponsible.  So yeah… hooray for judgement, yet again.

So, considering all the heated opinions, let’s look at some facts, with quotes and a reference link for those of you who need those kinds of things:

“[Literally thousands of studies since the 1950s have asked whether there is a link between exposure to media violence and violent behavior.  All but 18 have answered, “Yes.”   The evidence from the research is overwhelming.  According to the AAP, “Extensive research evidence indicates that media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.” [14]  Watching violent shows is also linked with having less empathy toward others [14a].
An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18 [15].
Two-thirds of all programming contains violence [16].
Programs designed for children more often contain more violence than adult TV [17].
Most violent acts go unpunished on TV and are often accompanied by humor. The consequences of human suffering and loss are rarely depicted.
Many shows glamorize violence.  TV often promotes violent acts as a fun and effective way to get what you want, without consequences [18].
Even in G-rated, animated movies and DVDs, violence is common—often as a way for the good characters to solve their problems.  Every single U.S. animated feature film produced between 1937 and 1999 contained violence, and the amount of violence with intent to injure has increased over the years [19].
Even “good guys” beating up “bad guys” gives a message that violence is normal and okay.  Many children will try to be like their “good guy” heroes in their play.
Children imitate the violence they see on TV.  Children under age eight cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, making them more vulnerable to learning from and adopting as reality the violence they see on TV [20].
Repeated exposure to TV violence makes children less sensitive toward its effects on victims and the human suffering it causes.
A University of Michigan researcher demonstrated that watching violent media can affect willingness to help others in need [20a].  Read about the study here: Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others.
Viewing TV violence reduces inhibitions and leads to more aggressive behavior.]”

The fact is, children reenact what they see.  They reenact the good and the bad and they don’t always learn the lesson a show is trying to teach- especially when they see and hear the “hero” hitting, fighting, being bratty or having bad attitude.  But let’s be honest – do you watch it all?  Do you sit with them for every lesson to ensure the RIGHT things are being translated into your kid’s brain?  Of course you don’t.  Should you? Yeah, probably.

Guilty and sometimes feeling defensive, we tend to say, “well, there’s only so much you can shield from your kids” to justify our actions and sure, that’s true. But let’s be honest for a second.  It’s okay to admit we’re not as careful as we “should/could/want to” be.  Once we can all agree that we’ve all done it and that some of us just don’t care, the conversation gets a lot easier.  As always, I’m about facts, not judgement.  The fact is, we allow our kids to watch TV that sometimes we probably shouldn’t.  There.  Easy, right?

We’ve all been there, we get in a rush, we get busy… Some days it feels like you’ve got a low flying helicopter circling your feet with its grabby hands and high pitched voice trying to interrupt you every 12 seconds, you’ve got a migraine coming on and deadlines, dinner and dusting to do.  So what do you do?  You grab the remote, find something animated and think, yeah that’ll do for the moment- then you move on to get stuff done or finish the phone call you started while the child is suddenly mesmerized and attention is diverted. Everyone I know has done this.  I’ve done this.  I’m not saying it’s bad… I’m saying it’s universal.  The problem isn’t that we’ve allowed a small portion of our child’s day to be managed by a television, it’s our assumption that just because it’s animated and on a children’s network, the show is healthy, or at the very least; not detrimental, to a child’s development.

That is a vastly over-confident assumption.

My growing frustration with typical children’s programming has led me to start making a list of the shows and movies we like and those we don’t.  I started this after a conversation with a friend who also has a toddler and a pre-schooler.  I asked her if she had ever seen a certain show because I had decided we weren’t watching it anymore and her response was, “oh yeah, they watch it all the time, it has cute music”.
I paused.  Then asked, “but have you ever sat down to watch it?
She answered that she had not, because it seemed cute and was on a “Jr” channel which means, obviously, it’s okay for kids that age.
So I began telling her about the show and what happened in the specific episode that finally tipped the scales for me and she was pretty horrified.  She vowed to sit down and watch it next time it was on.  Which she did a day or so later, she called to tell me she was really sad that it was so bad and that they would not be watching it anymore in her house, either because a nasty new habit her youngest started was obviously a direct result of watching that show and she didn’t even know it.
After this conversation, she and I went through several programs, comparing notes and generally evaluating them based on things like talking back, attitude, how many times a child character said “no” to an adult, how many times a child character whined about not getting their way, how many times hitting took place or bullying, or snarky, sarcastic attitude along with unnecessary violence of any kind.

I believe it is important to take each day at a time when it comes to these things and know that you may break your own rules when the time is right.  Something that is “off the shelf” today, might be totally okay tomorrow.  Something that is “off the shelf” for me and my kids might be completely acceptable to you.  It’s all different and mutable, just as every human being is.  My oldest reenacts what he sees almost instantly after he’s watched a new show.  One of my best friend’s sons almost NEVER does that, so his shows are not screened the way ours are.  So, see, it’s all different for everyone.  But that does not mean a general list of fundamental truths can’t be laid out;  things like kindness, compassion, honor and grace, respect for all things, glorifying goodness and not laughing at other’s failures or pain, and the value of truth should be static no matter who you are.  Now, does every single thing a kid watches HAVE to have all these lessons, alongside ABC’s and how to do basic math? Of course not!  Sometimes entertainment really is just entertaining and that’s okay- it doesn’t all have to be educational, but even plain old entertainment still should not tear down fundamental philosophies and key life lessons we want our kids to learn.

It’s frustrating and disappointing that we can’t trust networks to produce quality entertainment that will enrich our kids or at the very least, not undo the work we have done, but we also have to be realistic and understand that their job is to produce cartoons and make money, not to teach a child how to be a decent person. That’s our jobs, right?  SO, while I will continue to do my job bringing up my children as kind, compassionate and loving humans, regardless of what’s on TV, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be really awesome if I didn’t feel like I had to fight every other influence they encounter in order to do it.

That’s why I’m writing this.  I believe it is important that a parent not only see these shows as their child sees them, but also be brave enough to be the one to stand up and say NO.  Not in my house… sorry if all your little buddies watch it and sorry if daddy thinks it’s fine because he watched that show when he was young, but we don’t watch this show, not until you’re older. Period. Done. End of conversation.

Now, I’m not axing the TV altogether, so before you go thinking I’m turning into a crazy person trying to shelter my kids to keep them hidden under a rock, let me explain.

I think it’s a logical parenting move to want to make sure I’m not contributing to a behavior problem down the road by allowing them to see a bratty little cartoon character talking back, whining about not getting to play with something or hitting someone because they’re angry.  I don’t believe that makes me a crazy, over-sheltering mom, I think that makes me a decent mom that doesn’t want to sabotage her kids.  I’ve seen that kind of sabotage in action and it’s really sad.  The kids who grow up like that inevitably get in trouble in school or church or even at home because they talk back, throw attitude around, even hit and y’know what… WHEN (not if) that happens, it isn’t the KID’S fault.  The blame rests entirely on the parent’s for allowing the kid to be exposed to it, for allowing the behavior to be seen on a daily basis.  It’s not the kid’s fault when they are learning from their characters that reacting to situations through anger, violence, being sneaky, bratty or lying is okay because they see it on TV all the time.

Unless- you sit and talk about the lessons being learned every single time they watch the show and the child is truly grasping that concept of cause and effect.  In that case- you’re totally doing it right, but just know that it might be better not to expose them to the behavior at all if they are learning the behavior exists JUST to be told it’s bad.  That also doesn’t really make sense, in my opinion.  At least not for children under 7.

What I’ve found is a tremendous amount of peer pressure to let my kids watch whatever they want.  Parents are vocal about how lame it is that some people screen TV shows and act cautiously with their child’s entertainment options.  There are some things I’m totally lax about that others are not, so I think it all balances out.

I don’t want to be the mom who lets my kids watch whatever- consequences be damned, just so some other person won’t think I’m over protective.  I don’t want to set them up for failure just because I want my friends to think of me as the “cool mom” who’s child knows the Animaniacs song by heart at age three.

Speaking of three… that’s how old my oldest son is.  My daughter just turned two and the truth is, I WAS pretty easy going when it came to TV in the beginning.  In fact, my son actually DID know the theme song to Animaniacs at age two… until I realized that was a very, very bad plan.  I am always open to trying something out first, then allowing them to dictate what we watch based on how they react to it.  I wait to see what behaviors, if any, manifest after we watch.  Then, if something is crossed off our watch list, I keep it on a top shelf to bring back when I think they are old enough to try again.  This has been my process since Liam was about 9 months old.

I’m realizing now that this “let’s see what happens” process really doesn’t work very well in preventing bad behaviors from sticking.  Even one viewing of a negative behavior can take DAYS and DAYS to get out of his head and the damage done is NOT worth the hour of entertainment, especially when his sister or the cat or the neighbor’s children or mommy’s friends or grandparents who come to visit bear the brunt of that behavior.

So… until they are both old enough to recognize the bad behavior as actually BAD and not repeat it like little parrots, filters are important.  My ability to make a proper judgement PRIOR to allowing them to view the show/movie, is important.  Yes, this is harder.  Yes, I know, most people don’t have time to do that.

You should know, these decisions did not come lightly, but I’ve been backed up in my choices, not only by my own, personal experiences with my children, but also watching other families.  I watch these really good, careful parents who teach solid morals and compassion at home, yet, allow their kids to watch shows that contradict family directives and they never consider that one will effect the other.  I see them completely confused when the kids act out, hit one another, slam doors, yell, throw things and basically emulate the exact behavior they saw on TV.  Then of course, I see the children punished and the parents confused, never even considering it has to do with the shows they are watching.

In the geek culture, we have it rough.  We want to share all of the things with our kids and we don’t want to wait.  It’s SO HARD to wait!  But we have to.  For their sake, we just have to.  Like all things in the world of parenting, its not about us, it’s about them and we have to have the presence of mind to recognize that and do what’s right.  It’s our job to wait until we know they are ready to be exposed to the behaviors they see and to know WHEN that is.  Sometimes it’s earlier than others and sometimes it’s later than others.  Just because all the other 5 year olds can watch TMNT and not have to enact every fight scene with random people and hit them with stick swords, doesn’t mean my kid can do that.  Doesn’t mean he’s ready for it just because the age on the box of the DVD says he should be.  It’s our job to know when, where and how much they aught to be exposed to.  Anything less is just us trying to live vicariously through them or making an incorrect assumption that because it’s a children’s show, every child is old enough to watch it.  That isn’t fair to them and it’s time we stop pretending that we are allowing it because we want THEM to experience it.  The truth is, we’re exposing them because we want them to experience it with US.  So let’s be honest and just wait till they really can experience it with us, when they are really ready to do so and not before, just because we don’t want to be patient.  I think we would find the whole experience to be far more exciting and magical if we wait.

I guess the bottom line with this stuff for me is toddler and pre-school shows should be for toddlers and pre-schoolers.  Logical, yes?  They should be full of good language skills, solid and positive lessons, concepts like shapes, numbers, letters and basic issues like early math skills or cause and effect, all depicting behaviors we want them to emulate.  We want our kids to be exposed to shows that enrich them and work in tandem with the lessons we teach at home.  It doesn’t seem like too much to ask that a network that has an entire channel devoted to the age groups of 0-5 years do its utmost to provide this level of quality entertainment and yet, here we are, floating in a sea full of attitude, negative behaviors, ambiguous lessons and some really terrible examples to follow.

What we do not want, are examples of the behaviors we will have to discipline our children for emulating.  What we do not want, are influences that are directly contradicting what we try to teach at home.  What we do not want, is a toxic influence that we have to fight against every day to maintain a positive example.

Since I’ve been thinking about this and evaluating programs for literally 2 years now, my list of shows we don’t watch has become a little long, so instead of dumping it all into one ultra-long post that no one will read, I’m breaking it up into several review articles that will cover TV we don’t watch, TV we love, movies we shelved and movies we watch weekly, so follow the series- “Toxic Television” here on the blog to see detailed reviews of television and even movies we like and don’t like.

I’ve been told I’m “really strict” when it comes to TV, but you be the judge.

In the mean time, I would love to hear from people, especially preschool and kinder mamas…. What shows do you love and which ones do you avoid like the plague and why?



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