Television: dangers and remedies

Serge Tisseron (1)

Many of us feel that it is no longer possible to let our lives be increasingly taken over by screens, but we don’t see how we can live differently. And it is quite normal, because the greatest violence of the screens is precisely to lock us in solitude. Nowhere do we see the value of collective action, debate, controversy and exchange. In young children, the problem is even more serious. It offers them a continuous scroll of images and sounds that are not only enigmatic for them — like most of what surrounds them at this age — but that never adapt to their expectations and rhythms. It thus hinders the construction of essential reference points at this age. This is why, since 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against putting children under two years of age in front of the television, asks that older children not be exposed to it for more than two hours a day and recommends never putting the television in their room(1). But in a few years, television has become a nanny that many parents cannot do without! This is why, in addition to providing the widest possible public information, it is essential to set up prevention programs. Some of these measures are governmental, such as the ban on advertising in children’s time slots, but others are the initiative of parents and educators.

1. Proven misdeeds

It has long been known that television promotes overweight and obesity(2). But it also delays language development, and so-called « early childhood programs » have no more positive effects than other(3) programs. In learning, it is indeed the adult’s ability to modulate his voice according to his own emotional states in harmony with those of the baby that is important.

It has also been shown that television is harmful to babies’ development even in the background, and that it is best for parents to turn it off when their baby is in the room(4).

Finally, television disrupts the construction of self-representation. A young child interacts with the world through all his or her senses. He crawls on the floor as he pushes his toys, and prefers those that are a little heavy and offer resistance to those that weigh next to nothing — hence the success at this age of wooden toys. At the same time, he keeps putting them in his mouth and looking for the noise they make… and knows how to make them all noisy by dragging them on the floor! In other words, the relationship of young children to their toys is multi-sensory, combining sight, hearing, touch and smell. It is in this permanent entanglement that his unconscious image of the body is woven and that his feeling of being both « in his body » and « in the world » is established, and the time spent in front of a screen obviously harms these developments.

2. Disabilities that remain at age 10

Of greater concern, these effects persist at ten years and are measurable(5). Each additional hour spent in front of a television set between the ages of two and four (beyond two hours) translates into a 9% decrease in general physical activity, a 10% increase in snacking and a 5% increase in the Body Mass Index (BMI), which measures obesity, and notable losses in the area of social behaviors: the babies most exposed to television are « less autonomous, less persevering and less socially skilled children. For every additional hour spent in front of the small screen by a young child, the researchers noted a 7% decrease in interest in class at age ten, and a 6% decrease in mathematical skills. There was no impact on reading skills. But most impressive is the influence of early television consumption on sociability. Each extra hour later translated into a 10% increase in the risk of being victimized or « scapegoated » by classmates.

3. Children who can no longer pretend

Finally, television consumption alters the ability to play. Many children get bored as soon as the television is turned off or the console is taken away. They didn’t learn to play because they weren’t given the time. Fundamental learning takes place mainly in early childhood through play and interaction with the world. And playing requires effort. It takes persistence, self-regulation… just like intellectual effort. While children are naturally inclined to play, this ability, like many others, needs to be harnessed at the right time to develop properly. There is a time to learn to play in the same way that there is a time to learn to walk and a time to learn to talk.

The deprivation of spontaneous play linked to the overconsumption of television leads to a difficulty in « pretending » for many children, which alters their capacity for invention, creation, humour and imagination. They are threatened to lock themselves into univocal behavioral models, and to use in all circumstances only the same relational register, by constituting themselves for example always as victims or aggressors.

4. What preventions?

a) For parents: the 3–6‑9–12 rule

In practice, this rule means: avoid screens as much as possible before the age of three, never give a child a personal game console before the age of six, no accompanied Internet before the age of nine and no Internet alone before the age of twelve (or before entering college). This rule is necessary but obviously not sufficient: screens must be controlled at all ages. It has been relayed since 2011 by the French Association of Ambulatory Pediatrics (AFPA)(6). Let’s put it up everywhere, in hospitals and waiting rooms of doctors’ offices!

b) In the kindergarten class, the Three Figures Game

Television keeps children out of the game. When they look at it, they tend to lock themselves into rigid mental patterns where they only see themselves in one role: always the aggressor, always the victim or always the righter of wrongs(7). And the danger is that they systematically adopt the same attitude in reality. To remedy this situation, we created, and then successfully experimented with, a protocol that we called the Three Figures Game in reference to the three characters present in most stories watched and told by children: the aggressor, the victim, and the righter of wrongs. It attempts to reconcile all children with the different roles possible in a given situation by inviting them to play them all.

This program is part of the pre-conditions for the fight against violence in schools. It is led by the teachers and fulfills five of the six objectives that the French programs set for kindergarten: to appropriate language, to learn the rules of socialization and living together, to act and express oneself with one’s body, to use one’s imagination, and to value the reference to writing. In addition, it is a form of pre-education in images, it teaches « pretending » and it reduces the use of violent behavior by encouraging the capacity for empathy. The French Ministry of Education is committed to this. The Three Figures Game is also taught in Belgium.

c) In primary school, a booklet from the Academy of Sciences

This booklet (available in principle in September 2012) aims to offer teachers who wish to do so activities that develop children’s curiosity and knowledge about their relationship to screens. It is organized as much in relation to their advantages as to their dangers, and was realized by the Academy of Sciences in connection with the INPES (National Institute for Health Education). Its model is that of « La Main à la pâte ».

d) In each school, the « ten to tame the screens

Its goal is to encourage children to become active viewers who can choose what they really want to watch(8). At the same time, parents and educators invite them to cover other activities. We will not cure the overconsumption of screens without understanding that it is linked to a growing weakening of traditional links, but that it feeds it in return, by contributing to more and more solitude and psychological insecurity. It is this vicious circle that the « Dizaine pour apprivoiser les écrans » wants to break. To see the world differently, we need to experiment with concrete solidarity around specific objectives, and this is the opportunity.

This « Dizaine » is not designed to convince us to eliminate screens from our lives, but to teach us not to let them tyrannize us anymore. « Learning to see differently » is as much about taking a different look at screens as it is about reflecting on their place in our lives. And it is not for nothing that this « Dizaine » is based on children. They are the adults of tomorrow who will bring up their own children with all the more discernment towards the screens that they will have been helped themselves to rethink as soon as possible. This is our responsibility as parents and educators.

Serge Tisseron(9)

Notes et références
  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Media education. Pediatrics.1999 ;104 (2 pt 1):341–343.
  2. Barbara A. Dennison, Tara A. Erb and Paul L. Jenkins. Television Viewing and Television in Bedroom Associated With Overweigt Risk Among Low-Income Preschool Children. Pediatrics 2002; 109; 1028–1035.
  3. Christakis D, Zimmerman F, Enquête département de pédiatrie de l’hôpital pour enfants de Seattle (Washington), publiée dans la revue américaine Journal of Pediatrics, 4 April 2004, vol 113 ; 708–713.
  4. Pempeck, Tiffany A., Georgetown University, The effects of background television on the toy play behavior of very young children. (2008) Journal Child Dev: 79 (4):1137–51.
  5. Pagani Linds S., Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 2010; 164(5):425–431.
  6. L’AFPA regroupe plus de 60 % des pédiatres d’exercice ambulatoire (médecine de l’enfant en dehors de l’hôpital : pédiatres libéraux et pé- diatres travaillant en Protection Maternelle Infantile ou en institutions).
  7. Tisseron S, Les effets de la télévision sur les jeunes enfants : prévention de la violence par le « Jeu des trois figures », Devenir, Volume 22, Numéro 1, 2010, pp. 73–93.
  8. Cette idée a guidé le « Défi des 10 jours pour voir autrement », lancée en mai 2008 par Serge Hygen à l’école du Ziegelwasser à Strasbourg Ce projet était inspiré du «Défi de la dizaine sans télé ni jeu vidéo» du Québec, lui-même inspiré par le programme SMART («Student Media Awareness to Reduce Television») mis au point et testé par Thomas Robinson en 1999 en Californie (USA). Cet auteur a montré que la réduction du temps de télévision entraî- nait une diminution de la violence verbale et physique, et même une baisse de l’obésité. Non Violence actualité y a consacré son numéro de janvier février 2009 (www.nonviolence ‑actualité.org)
  9. Psychiatre et psychanalyste, Directeur de recherches de l’Université à Paris Ouest Nanterre, dernier ouvrage paru: Rêver, fantasmer, virtualiser, du virtuel psychique au virtuel numérique (Dunod, 2012) . Blog : http://www.squiggle.be
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