Psychologist and head of the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester, Professor Barrie Gunter, has been working with the BBC Panorama team to find out. The results of the study will be shown on BBC One on 18th June.
Twenty-three 7 and 8-year-old school children from a single year group in a primary school in the Manchester area took part. They included children with a wide cross section of interests, from those who spent their free time in front of a screen to others who led a more active life outside school. Their families were also recruited to take part.
Over a five-week period, the children were observed in the classroom and along with their families in their homes. During weeks 3 and 4, half the participants had their TV sets, PCs and portable game consoles removed or disabled. The remaining families carried on as normal.
All the children participating were filmed in school by the BBC over this period, while five families were filmed at home. All the families kept diaries indicating how they used their time and the class teacher produced behaviour ratings scores on each child in class at the end of each week.
Afterwards, some parents admitted the experiment had shown up how they had allowed themselves to rely too much on on-screen entertainment to keep children amused while they got on with their own business.
Even after just two weeks, families found they began to interact more, even to ‘rediscover’ their pleasure in each other’s company.
Children tired from an active evening were more liable to go to bed early and wake up refreshed and alert the next day.
Professor Gunter said: “This research could reveal just how dependent people have become on their TV sets and personal or portable computers. These are technologies many of us take for granted these days. The TV is switched on without thinking and provides background noise and a constant companion. It is only once these sources of entertainment are removed from our environment that our dependency on them is dramatically exposed. Suddenly we find ourselves faced with a lot of empty time to fill or a room full of…silence. The big question for the families we have observed is how they coped with the absence of screen-based entertainment.
“Our soundings indicated that families in TV- and PC-deprived homes turned to the next nearest alternatives – radio instead of TV for background noise and board games instead of electronic games for interactive enjoyment. What we also found, however, is that the families also talked to and interacted with each other more.
There was no conclusive evidence that the temporary absence of TV and game consoles resulted in changed behaviour in school, but spin-off educational benefits were likely to accrue from the greater enthusiasm many of the children showed for doing homework and as a result of going to bed earlier when there was no TV to tempt them to stay up late at night.”
One parent told the Panorama team after the two-week experiment: “Thinking of how we were as a family around the TV…the TV controlling us…and using the TV as a pacifier for the kids…just seems totally crazy now.”
The Panorama programme Is TV Bad for my Kids? is on BBC One on Monday 18th June at 8.30-9.00pm.
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