Book Review: Why TV is Good for Kids

Today’s book review is Why TV Is Good for Kids : Raising 21st Century Children, by Catharine Lumby and Duncan Fine (who incidentally are married to each other with two small children). Despite the title, its not just about TV. Its a series of chapters (in some cases rants) about all the different ways in which parents and societies panic about children and societies, and why the panics are completely unnecessary.

The best chapters are the one that clearly started the books: the ones about media panics, and in particular, media violence panics. The authors make some really good points about how much of the panic about television generally, and violence on television in particular is snobbishness, and a wistful desire for a bygone age.

Like it or lump it, television is a major part of our media diet, and the authors point is that taking children away from it is taking children away from participating in our society. In particular, they spend some time on the idea that if you enjoy watching television, it must be bad for you.

The chapter on media violence is the best chapter in the book. It spends some time detailing the complete lack of evidence that television violence has any effect on a child’s propensity to actual violence. The only studies that show that kind of effect are lab studies that put their subjects into artificial and contrived situations, and then watch they do afterwards. From a very young age, children can tell the difference between real and cartoon violence, and will shy away from the former while loving the latter. If you want to look at the influence of the home environment on violence, violent TV comes a long way after poor and/or dysfunctional family life, if it appears at all.

But (and its a big one), this book reads as if this well researched chapter on media violence has been padded out by a series of rants on the authors pet topics. I found the obesity section particularly annoying, and it made me doubt some of the other chapters. The authors use the fact that a Body Mass Index (BMI) is a rough and ready measure which has a wide range, and fails to accurately reflect the body type of footballers to suggest that BMI is a meaningless way of measuring the increase in overweightness and obesity in a population.

Because the proportion of overweight kids has gone up from 2% to something like 6-8% in 20 years, there is no reason to worry. This whole chapter reads as if the authors are picking studies to suit their argument. While I read the studies the media presents me with, I read a lot of them, and this section read less like an expose, and more like people picking their evidence to suit their argument.

Other sections in the book dealt with marketing panics (really we are not buying too much and the Affluenza disease described by Clive Hamilton doesn’t exist) education panics (today’s schools are really pretty good compared with a generation or two ago, but they teach different things to reflect today’s society) and sex panics (little girls have always dressed up in a sexual way; mothers who don’t like it are just being snobs who hate their daughters looking like white trash).

In general, the most thought provoking parts of these chapters were those where the authors point out that much of our panic about many things (and by “our” they general mean middle to upper class WASP type Australian parents – I’m afraid I fit that description) is provoked by snobbishness. They comment that the obesity panic has come so that the rich people have a socially acceptable way to look down on the poor people, now that racism and classism is less acceptable.

While I’m glad I bought and read the book (and devoured it in a gulp), I was disappointed. I read Catharine Lumby in the Sydney Morning Herald, and usually enjoy her stuff. But Everything Bad is Good for You (reviewed here) covered this ground much better, and in a more thought provoking way.