Growing up as a home-schooled pastor's kid in a low-income family, it took a day's worth of preparation to "flick on the tube."

First, Dad had to head downstairs to the basement and dust off the old black and white box. Then, after bringing it up and installing it, he plodded off to the local library where he rented a VCR. Next, we picked out a movie to rent – which also took a lot of deliberation, considering we were only allowed to watch G-rated movies. Finally, after popping corn on the stove, we gathered around the TV for a family night of entertainment.

These days, it's nothing for kids to toss their school bag aside and plop down in front of "the tube," clicking mindlessly through hundreds of channels for the next few hours as cartoons and daytime television fills their moldable minds.

Sure, they might break for supper, and perhaps be forced to do some homework, but it's not uncommon for the TV to sing them a lullaby as they fall to sleep.

A constant companion

A study reported by the Agence France-Presse showed that the more preschool-aged boys are exposed to television violence – violent cartoons in particular – the more likely they are to act aggressively, be disobedient and get into trouble later in life.

"What parents do not realize," lead researcher Dr. Dimitri Christakis told the AFP, is "preschool children don't distinguish between fantasy and reality the way older children and adults do. To them it's all very real."

For many parents, television acts as an electronic nanny; it's a handy device to entertain children while mom and dad cook supper or take some personal time.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed TV watching makes the average Canadian child sedentary for three to five hours a day. Children six years and under spend an average of two hours a day using screen media (be it Internet, computer games or television), while 26 per cent have a television in their bedrooms.

Nature Deficit Disorder

Imagination, books, stories on tape and outdoor games like road hockey and neighbourhood basketball are becoming things of the past, while virtual reality replaces actuality.

Aiden Enns, publisher of Geez magazine, wrote in a recent issue, "I don't want [movies] to skew my perception of the natural world. When I see birds in the sky, I don’t want to think of some documentary movie, I want to think of birds in the sky."

If your children are visual learners, their "picture" of the world will be determined by how much television they watch versus the amount of "reality" they engage in.

Unfortunately the amount of television children watch today equals more than the time dedicated to reading and playing outdoors combined.

With 80 per cent of Canadians living in urban dwellings today, it's much easier for kids to download photos of nature rather than actually experience it. "Nature is increasingly an abstraction you watch it on a nature channel," says Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods.

"The [big-box] aesthetic has crept into our heads," continues Enns in his article. "We look for bright colours, shiny knobs. We seem to enjoy anything that disconnects us from our natural surroundings."

Recently, federal and provincial efforts have been made to reinstate the importance of outdoor activity in Canadian students. Funding for amateur sports has increased, with one per cent of health spending going toward sport and physical activities. And a children's fitness tax credit came into effect last January (2007). But the training really begins at home.

It's crucial for families to make the time to hike, walk, bike or camp, in order to avoid what Louv has coined as “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

“It can be the clump of trees at the end of the cul-de-sac or the ravine by the house,” says Louv. "To a child, they can be a whole universe."

Physical and emotional side-effects

Over the past two decades, rates of obesity have nearly tripled among Canadian children, according to a report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Likewise, the report's authors noted that four out of five Canadian youth are not active enough to meet international guidelines for optimal growth and development.

Pediatrician Dr. Peter Nieman acknowledges the seriousness of this situation. Working primarily with obese children at the Pediatric Obesity Clinic in Calgary, Alberta, he knows first-hand the influence television has on what he calls "mindless eating."

"Poor nutritional choices are made because of ads pushing food that isn't healthy," he says.

He also notes the negative effect television has on children's personalities. "The longer they sit in front of the television, the more they turn into zombies. They begin to criticize and use bad language." It's a desensitizing tool, he says.

A heart matter

Nieman equates television with allowing a stranger into the house. "We tell our children not to talk with strangers, but we don't have a problem with letting strangers talk to them everyday through the television," he says.

While it's impossible to avoid evil in the world, it is possible to censor it in the home. "More and more Christian families . . . focus on the positive, or rationalize the negative, by using it to 'teach their kids.' But for every negative, 10 positives are required to counteract it," says Nieman.

And television certainly has its negatives. As Focus on the Family founder, Dr. James Dobson, says in the booklet, The Impact of TV on Young Lives, "Much of our television programming centres around human hatred, whether it be between classes and races or whether it be between husband and wife. We are concentrating on the very worst that life has to offer, and the very worst elements in our society."

It is up to parents to filter through the material and guard their children's minds and hearts from the harmful effects of one of the world's most powerful gateways to communication. "I think it's a good idea to get the entire family together to talk specifically about television," Dr. Dobson continues. "Teach your children not only what they can and can't watch, but why; help them learn to regulate their own viewing habits. Give them an understanding of what's wrong with television and how damaging it can be. That's better than a series of 'yeses' and 'no's' and arbitrary prohibitions."

Emily Wierenga is a writer living in Neerlandia, Alberta. She is the author of Chasing Silhouettes: How to Help a Loved One Battling an Eating Disorder.

© 2008 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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