The "electronic babysitter", the "idiot box", or one of the most important inventions of the 20th century? Opinions about television, and especially children's viewing habits, tend to be strongly held and divisive. The news that some programmes from the BBC's children's channel, CBeebies, will be broadcast on Showtime from this month has been greeted with great joy by many British parents in the UAE. But some, armed with research studies, denounce television as a bad influence, something that takes children away from more worthwhile activities such as exercise, reading and interacting with other people. The amount of time their children spend watching TV can make parents feel terribly guilty. It is also difficult to assess whether they are right to feel so concerned.
Children's TV covers a broad spectrum of programming, from cartoons to dramas, and educational programmes such as Sesame Street and Balamory. Early-years experts spend years developing educational children's programmes. Joan Gantz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, developed the programme with the help of a Harvard University psychologist to promote greater literacy among socially deprived preschoolers in the US. Balamory was created by early-years specialists to encourage emotional growth and cognitive development. As the CBeebies website explains, "Living in a community, the characters have to resolve many dilemmas. They also learn how to reflect on their own behaviour and that of others." Similarly, in Teletubbies, "the predominance of vowel sounds is no accident. These are the first sounds that babies make and imitate". Everything the characters say is repeated clearly by a narrator. The intention is to use language to stimulate word recognition.
Television can also provide a way for children to learn about other cultures, history and the world at large. Art and craft programmes can also stimulate creativity. Television viewing is considered a normal part of life in most developed societies. For expatriate children, watching TV from their home country can provide them with cultural reference points that will help them fit in when they return.
The arrival of CBeebies is certainly welcomed by parents who want watching television to be an educational experience for their children. "I get my mum to record CBeebies on DVD in the UK and send them to me," says Nic Foulds, mother to Sam, seven, and Joe, four. "I find the other kids' channels, such as the Cartoon Network are quite aggressive, which is not good with two boys who copy everything."
Foulds thinks that the traditional Disney cartoons can sometimes be too violent. "Even classic cartoons have some level of violence and fighting. I like CBeebies for the range of programmes. It caters for younger children better than the Cartoon Network and the Disney Channel. There's a real diversity." At the weekends Foulds's children often watch a DVD when they wake up. "We have a very large selection of DVDs - then I know what they are watching," she says. However, she does try to limit the time her children watch TV, especially when they are home in the afternoon.
"They get up so early for school, that sometimes they need a break. I think television does keep them entertained and can be educational. It's fun, too. They can watch TV while you do the jobs that need to be done," she says. As Foulds is aware, it is necessary to police what children watch. Regardless of how long they are sat in front of the TV - it's what they see that counts. Children under the age of six have a limited ability to discern between reality and fantasy and will need parental input to be able to process what they see. This is especially true of issues relating to stereotyping and risk-taking behaviour that they may be tempted to mimic. Most experts recommend "co-viewing" with younger children - this means that adults should sit with their kids and talk about what they see. Adults can explain any potentially confusing scenes and use the show's narrative to stimulate discussion about other things.
Foulds, for one, tries to ensure that her boys watch TV where she can still hear them. "As long as I am in control of what they watch it's fine," she says. Violence is a key concern for many parents. Television images are so immediate that a few seconds of on-screen violence can have a huge effect on a child. A study by the Australian Early Childhood Association in 2000 stated that by the time the average child finishes primary school they will have watched 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television and warned that overexposure to violence on television can give rise to post-traumatic stress disorder in children.
Severine Beau doesn't allow her children, Thomas, four, and Charlotte, six, to watch any TV during the week. "There are very rarely any educational programmes on, and I have heard that watching television will not be good for developing their imagination or creativity," she explains. Back home, in France, Beau had been told about the importance of children being given the opportunity to be idle. "It is not good for them to have an activity everyday. They need time to play by themselves and to create stories and games. It's very important for their personal development."
Instead, her children read, play games in their bedrooms or have friends come to visit. Beau admits that it can be tough not having a television as back-up. "I had often heard that TV was not good for children, but sometimes I did love to put them in front of it so I could do my own thing," she admits. But is watching television, in itself, harmful? Is it OK for my child to watch CBeebies' educational programmes for three hours a day? The short answer to both questions is no.
Just last week researchers from Glasgow University released a report stating that children who spend more than two hours a day watching television were twice as likely to develop asthma than those who do not. Some scientists believe that when sitting passively watching television, children do not inhale deeply and regularly enough and are thereby not stretching their airways, making them more likely to become asthmatic.
Obesity is a huge problem here in the UAE, particularly among children. A study carried out in 2005 by scientists in Ras Al Khaimah showed that the incidence of obesity among children in the UAE was two to three times greater than the international standard. Children who watch excessive amounts of television are at greater risk of obesity because by watching TV they are not out exercising. If that were not enough, the sedentary nature of TV watching also reduces the body's metabolic rate. Children are also likely to snack more while watching television. They will also be exposed to advertising for convenience foods, which will encourage poor eating habits.
Other research has shown that spending too much time in front of a television or computer screen can have a harmful effect on children purely due to the fact that it is solitary activity which prevents them interacting with other people, including their parents. Just last month, Dr Aric Sigman warned that spending time alone watching television or using social networking sites, from myCBBC (for children as young as six), to Facebook, was preventing young people from learning vital social skills and interpreting body language. Lack of social connection can also entail physiological changes, Dr Sigman explained. Scientists have identified 209 genes involved in immune system controls, stress and illness responses, which are adversely impacted when humans are socially isolated. Social isolation can give rise to inflammatory disorders which are linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders.
While television viewing for limited periods of time is not intrinsically bad, particularly if parents choose educational programmes such as many of those on CBeebies, unregulated and extensive television viewing can be. The key is to encourage children to consider the television as a useful tool. Watching TV can be educational, relaxing and entertaining, as long as we are responsible about how long, and when, children do it.