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TV Can Sometimes Make a Good Third Parent

01/23/2014 08:27 EST | Updated 03/25/2014 05:59 EDT

The television has always been a long-debated medium, particularly its influence on our children -- rightfully so now that our youth are averaging only 900 hours a year in formal education, but an inconceivable 1500 hours a year in front of the TV.

What a child learns in those precious few years has a direct influence on their thoughts and behaviors for the rest of their lives, yet instead of learning basic skills from the real people around them, they are more engrossed in cartoons, movies and video games with characters that are providing their education for us.

It's a pattern that starts from a very young age too, with 2-5 year olds in the US and Canada 'investing' over 21 hours a week in front of the TV, a situation made far worse when we learn that 70% of preschools have a television playing all day, providing additional exposure.

"It's just hard not to listen to TV: it's spent so much more time raising us than you have." Bart Simpson

However, in a busy world where families often find themselves using the TV as the third parent, it's thankfully not all bad news. According to a study from the University of Texas, "preschool children who watched a few hours a week of educational programming perform better on achievement tests over time than their peers who watch more general entertainment shows."

The quantity of TV consumed therefore doesn't seem to be the primary factor, more the type of shows that our kids are watching -- focused, educational shows good, sitcoms and reality TV, bad?

But if the kids have unsupervised control of the TV, they will inevitably see far too much programming that wasn't intended for them. Cartoons like South Park and Family Guy are great examples of shows that look very appealing to children, and are regularly aired during the day, but are from appropriate.

"By the age of 18, the average child has witnessed 200,000 acts of violence, including 18,000 simulated murders, on television. It is not always easy to provide clear, consistent structure for children, but providing it often helps keep children safe and helps them grow to be responsible adults." Jean Ilsley Clarke

Data from the parent's site 'AreTheyOldEnough.com' reveals that as the responsible adults we rarely agree with each other about what shows are actually appropriate and when. Family Guy for instance carries an official age rating of TV-MA (TV-14 for edited versions) yet Americans consider 12 to be acceptable, Canadians 13 and the British, 14. Within Canada itself Ontario, The Prairies and Quebec pushed the average even younger than 13, and British Columbia and the Atlantic region moved it back higher.

Whilst the US may have felt 12 was acceptable overall, the rural areas voted strongly for no viewing until they were a full 18 years old, and in the UK the polarizer was gender, with men allowing their kids to watch from 12, and women feeling 16 was more the right time.

Similar differences were even seen on AreTheyOldEnough with shows that were actually made for kids, including Cartoon Network's Jonny Bravo. The wise-cracking, Elvis-like show carries an official guidance of TV-7, but Americans argue for 9, and the UK and Canada, a more conservative 11.

With many votes coming in above their official rating, parents do seem to care what their children watch, and in contrast to the popular view of the media, are not allowing standards to slip without at least a gentle fight. That also means though that the official rating seem to be out of line with the parents, believing that it is more acceptable for kids to see sex and violence in their shows.

"Perhaps one problem is that by the time we have decided that a show is inappropriate for our children to watch, we have already decided it's too interesting for us to turn off" (anon).

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