Monday 21 May 2018

How much cartoon time is too much?

Netflix is targeting our kids with the launch of children's TV. Is a small bit of tablet time as bad for our little ones as the experts say

Down time: Kids watch cartoons on digital devices such as tablets, as well as TVs
Down time: Kids watch cartoons on digital devices such as tablets, as well as TVs

Chrissie Russell

It's the TV streaming service that's got us all hooked - now Netflix is coming after our kids. Last week the company's content manager announced it's doubling the amount of children's TV on the service in 2016 and yes, it will be available in Ireland.

The rationale for upping the kids' content, from 15 to 35 shows, is clever. Netflix knows the reason a lot of its older customers are signed up is because they're mums and dads, more likely to be binge watching Better Call Saul than hitting the town. Offering something for the children makes the service even more appealing.

"We believe that the more people in the household who find something to love on Netflix, the more valuable families feel their membership is," says Erik Barmack, vice president of Global Independent Content. "So having a great selection of TV shows and movies for kids and families to watch is important to us."

There's also the hope that the youngsters who become Netflix fans today, will carry that loyalty through to adulthood.

"Unlike traditional TV, kids don't grow up and out of Netflix, we have TV shows and movies for kids from preschool through the teen years," adds Barmack.

"Over time, our recommendations will help kids find shows that they like as they grow up."

Sounds like that's the kids' viewing sorted for the next decade or so then. The only trouble is, the message from all the child experts is pretty clear - TV is bad for children.

Just recently Early Childhood Ireland published a survey that revealed almost half of parents noticed a negative change in their child's behaviour after using technology (the report included TVs, computers, smart phones and tablets). This included parents describing the child as 'angry', 'moody', 'tired', 'emotional', 'passive', 'cranky', 'whiney', 'disengaged', 'zoned out', 'argumentative' and 'challenging'.

Other reports have suggested TV viewing is linked to language delays, attention problems, poor reading skills and reduced levels of creativity.

Which all sounds fairly damning. But is kids' TV really the devil it's made out to be? I'll be honest, I have a vested interest in the topic. I had hoped to keep my 17-month old TV-free until at least two (as advised by the experts) but recently he discovered Peppa Pig and he's hooked.

Watching a couple of episodes in the morning had become our dirty little daytime secret until I went on Facebook one day and found one friend (a Cambridge graduate) and another (a high-flying executive at Google) pondering why some, but not all, the show's character's names were alliterative: 'Peppa Pig', 'Suzie Sheep' and yet 'George Pig') and I felt a little better - clearly we're all at it.

But rather than feeling guilty about letting our children watch TV that's aimed at them, Sheila DeCourcy who runs children's channel, RTEjr, reckons we need to have a better appreciation for what they're watching.

"Obviously too much of anything isn't good for anybody but there's definitely some lazy stereotyping that goes on when people think of children's TV," she says.

"It's not all loud music and crazy camera angles. Good children's TV is about strong storytelling, seeing other people, different places. It's all about community and support and friendship."

Shows like RTE's Ifta Award-winning, Our Farm, Makers (which introduces children to master crafts like weaving and carpentry) and Puffin Rock are all presented at a gentle, rhythmic pace - a far cry from the frenetic, coloured images we might associate with kids' TV.

"Children learn in very diverse ways and I firmly believe digital technology and television are as equally valid ways of learning as doing so through books and reading," says Sheila.

Not that she feels TV should be all about education. "I think it's a shame that some people's perspective of what children should be taking from watching TV is defined by such a limited agenda."

The team at Netflix are likewise keen to dispel the impression that their viewing is the visual equivalent of junk food. The Magic School Bus is about teaching kids about outer space, under the sea and inside the human body, Project MC2 encourages girls to be interested in science and maths and Numbers Around the Globe transports toddlers to locations around the world from the North Pole to the Tropics as they learn about numbers - these are just some of the examples they cite of educational content.

It's also worth noting that, when you look at the research closely, it's not necessarily saying that TV is the root of all evil, rather how much viewing is taking place and what children are doing the rest of the time. Are they being babysat for large portions of time by Thomas the Tank or is Thomas just part of a day that's otherwise filled with play, conversation, creativity and interaction?

As we all know, it's far too easy to get into the 'just one more episode' mentality, whether it's another Peppa Pig to buy a bit of 'me time' or another fix of Orange Is the New Black because you have to find out what happens next. It's time that could be better spent reading, talking or learning a new skill.

But if you've spent all day singing The Wheels on the Bus, building forts and reading Dear Zoo for the 100th time, there's nothing wrong with giving yourself (and the mummy guilt) a break, snuggling up on the sofa and enjoying a little bit of quality TV time.

5 of the best kids' shows on Netflix

1 Puffin Rock

Follow a young bird's adventures that celebrate curiosity, kindness and friendship.

2 Numbers around the Globe

Discover different countries while learning 1,2,3.

3 Sid the Science Kid

Armed with a sense of humour and the help of his family and friends, Sid tackles questions about science.

4 WordWorld

Join Duck and his friends to solve alphabet challenges.

5 Planet Earth

A landmark series for nature lovers of any age, exploring the heights of the Himalayas, deepest oceans and everything in between.

The Magic School Bus Exploring outerspace, under the sea and even inside the human body with Ms Frizzle and her bus.

- Chrissie Russell

Irish Independent

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