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What We Learned About Kids’ TV Shows, Screen Time

Over the weekend, The Swaddle, in partnership with Godrej Culture Lab, hosted the Children’s Media Festival in Mumbai. A panel discussion about what makes kids’ shows and games educational or merely entertainment kicked off the following day’s line-up of featured children’s films from around the world. Below, we sum up what each panelist had to say.

Our panelists, from left: Lisa Heydlauff, director and founder of Going to School; Monica Wahi, founder of South Asian Children’s Cinema Forum; Dr. Shabbi Luthra, founder and CEO of Consilience Learning; panel moderator Karla Bookman, founder and editor of The Swaddle; Sashwati Banerjee, managing director of Sesame Workshop India; and Dr. Anupam Sibal, pediatrician, author, and group medical director at Apollo Hospitals.

All panelists agreed that the amount of screen time is less concerning than the content of the shows and games kids are watching and playing. Unfortunately, quality is more difficult to come by than most parents realize.

There’s constantly new research on how kids develop, pointed out Sashwati Banerjee, the managing director of Sesame Workshop India, but none of it is informing programming for 2- to 8-year-old kids, which is when 90% of brain development happens. There are very few preschool shows that teach kids life skills and strategies.

Many purport to, but Monica Wahi, founder of South Asian Children’s Cinema Forum, questioned what kids’ educational programs — and parents — consider skills. “Lessons of justice, respect and tolerance matter,” she said. “Lessons of brushing teeth don’t.” The problem is, she added, the lessons that matter often fail to meet the “laughs-per-minute” metric most makers of kids’ movies, videos and TV programs use to determine what’s valuable content.

All panelists agreed that it’s not just a matter of filtering out the bad stuff, but actively pursuing good content for kids.

“Network filters that keep certain content away aren’t the same thing as life filters,” said Dr. Shabbi Luthra, founder and CEO of Consilience Learning. “Kids need life filters — the one between their ears.” And adults are the ones who must teach kids the life skills to discern what is appropriate content and behavior, she explained.

How? By engaging with children during screen time. This can add the educational element that most ‘educational’ shows are lacking.

“Parents have to talk to kids from the earliest ages,” said Dr. Anupam Sibal, pediatrician, author, and group medical director at Apollo Hospitals. “When you have a habit of talking with kids, you can have a dialogue about content, about a lot of things.”

Look for the emotional moments to start conversations, suggested Lisa Heydlauff, director and founder of Going to School.

“Talk to kids about what’s happening in the show they’re watching, in the books they read,” she said. “When I was a child, I read Charlotte’s Web and was upset by the ending. My mother used the opportunity to talk about death in a safe way. From there, you can talk to kids about how not everything they read or watch is true, and about how to tell what’s true and false.”

 The discussion concluded with an audience member posing the question that haunts most parents of small children: But how do you talk to kids about a video or TV show they’ve just watched? What do you ask and say to make sure they’re taking away the right learning? Watch The Swaddle for a series of articles that answers this very question — coming soon!

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