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Why kids should watch more TV

Now that I have a son, it’s time I review his television choices.

Sure, Sam is barely pushing 2 months old and can’t even focus his eyes to see the TV yet, but it’s never too early to start. At least this is the excuse I’m using to watch afternoon cartoons.

After exploring our options, I come away impressed with kids’ TV. I know that’s not cool to say. It’s cool to criticize TV and say how it warps children, turning them into depraved beings.

And speaking of depraved beings, politicians have made reforming kids’ TV a hot issue. They want kids to watch less. They want networks to program more “family friendly” shows. The Federal Communications Commission seems poised to legally require TV stations broadcast 3 hours a week of children’s educational programs.

I’m not sure why everyone has their undies in such a bunch over this issue. Instead of wringing their hands, they should just chill out and watch some cartoons. They’re not that bad. In fact, some of them are more educational than most prime-shows on network TV and more intelligent and civil than any Congressional proceeding featured on C-SPAN.

Most parents understand this. A new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center shows most parents think TV has done their children more good than harm. Only 24 percent of parents thought TV did children more harm than good, while 57 percent said it was beneficial.

So if parents don’t have a problem with what their kids are watching, why all the fuss? Because politicians realize they can score quick, cheap political points by trashing TV. Politicians say TV is presenting a dishonest and damaging portrayal of life to children. But in doing so, politicians ignore the survey results and present a dishonest and damaging portrayal of kids’ TV. 

I’d say politicians are doing more harm to our children than TV by blowing a non-issue out of proportion. It’s not kids’ TV that needs reform, it’s politicians. Maybe we can legally require politicians spend at least 3 hours a week on real issues, rather than meaningless, merely manipulative matters.

Educational kids’ shows can be found not only on PBS. The most informative show Sam and I have found is “Animaniacs,” a Warner Brothers cartoon featuring three wise-cracking, pre-teen siblings. Its theme song proclaims: “We are zany to the max, there’s baloney in our slacks.”

But despite its outward wackiness, “Animaniacs” teaches kids about literature and popular culture — in a very subliminal, almost subversive way. The cartoons often place the siblings at the scene of a great novel or in historical settings. In one cartoon they are aboard the Pequod with Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick. In another, they sit around the Algonquin Round Table with famous 1920s writers.

The references are all accurate yet they are all silly. For example, in the Algonquin cartoon, one of the siblings throws up in writer Robert Benchley’s hat. This makes it very entertaining for 10-year-olds (and for that matter, 31-year-olds).

In the way heroes of other cartoons casually use violence, “Animaniacs” characters off-handedly throw around sometimes obscure literary and historical references. If cartoon violence makes kids violent, as some claim, then shouldn’t it also be true that cartoon intelligence on “Animaniacs” makes kids smarter? The hip siblings of “Animaniacs” make it cool to know stuff.

There are other reasons TV isn’t bad for kids. A recent report at the American Psychological Association credits television with helping to improve children’s IQ scores. Kids test about 15 points higher than 50 years ago, partly because listening to TV has improved verbal scores.

Our real worry should be that kids are watching less TV. According to another recent study by Nielsen Media Research, kids ages 2 to 11 are spending five fewer hours per week in front of the tube than they did in the mid-1980s. Fortunately, they are still watching TV more than 21 hours per week, the study says.

But we cannot let this trend of less TV watching continue. With  parents saying TV does kids more good than harm, with psychologists saying TV improves kids’ IQ scores, we must ensure that children are getting enough TV.

Instead of politicians flapping their jaws about TV’s evil effects, they should recognize that their reform efforts may shortchange our children.

You can do your part. Make sure your child gets enough TV. But do make sure they are watching appropriate shows — nothing sleazy, scary or mind-numbingly stupid.

In other words, no C-SPAN.

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