Summer vacation. All year long my children count the days until they break from school. All summer long I count the days until they return.

As much as I love my kids, the reality is that seemingly endless, hot, long days are hard to fill. Kids need stimulation, entertainment, socialization, and unless you have nothing else to do than create exciting itinerary, sooner or later it is going to get a bit taxing.

And the hardest part is not relying or resorting to a solution that may appear harmless, is cheap, convenient, easy, mobile and works. Kind of.

Children spend more time watching television than in any other activity except for sleep

Appropriately called the “idiot box,” or otherwise known as television, this brain-damaging device (and yes, I do mean brain damaging), exists also in the computer, the car, and in hand-held little monitors that my baby can hold herself.

And I don’t use the term "brain damaging” lightly. Just read a random sample of studies on the effects of television on children and you will be shocked. You’ll find statements like, “mindless television or video games may idle and impoverish the development of the pre-frontal cortex, or that portion of the brain that is responsible for planning, organizing and sequencing behavior for self-control, moral judgement and attention,” (American Academy of Pediatrics, Understanding TV’s Effects on the Developing Brain, Jane M. Healy, PhD, 1998).

Now this is not to say that there is nothing beneficial to be gained from television or that it serves no purpose or has no usage. Quite the contrary. But like anything else, it all depends on how it is used.

The danger of the television is that it is all too easy to sit in front of it endlessly. Not only can it negate any need for thinking or participation, but even worse, what one watches penetrates deep within the viewer and affects both the conscious and subconscious—and far more often than not, it's not stuff we'd really want in there..

So if a child is watching a violent movie, cartoon or program, that violence is entering his or her mind and is that more likely to enter his or her actions. Considering the amount of explicit, violent and graphic shows that are aired, along with the amount of time children spend in front of the television, the results are frightening.

And I am sure we have all heard the stories of children that hurt other children or themselves through trying to imitate something they saw on television or in a movie, even when the program is specifically geared for children. I mean, if the cartoon character can jump off the roof and land just fine, why can’t an eight-year-old?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Media violence may cause aggressive and antisocial behavior, desensitize viewers to future violence and increase perceptions that they are living in a mean and dangerous world.”

Now, being that children spend more time watching television than in any other activity except for sleep, (Huston and Wright, University of Kansas. “Television and Socialization of Young Children.”) this results in a situation where by the time a child reaches adulthood at the age of 18, he or she will have watched 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence (American Psychiatric Association.)

With these statistics, we as parents must think twice before plopping the kids down in front of the television.

But yet it is so easy. And it is so convenient. And as I write this very article, my three older children are doing what? Yup, sitting right in front of that monitor, watching none other than a movie.

So what are the alternatives? What are our options?

Like anything, there is always the ability to use something for the positive or for the negative. Anything powerful has these two options. What it doesn’t have, is the ability to remain neutral. We must take responsibility over what we choose to watch and what we allow our children to watch.

It is an entirely different discussion altogether to comment on the responsibility of the stations and media outlets themselves. Should they be careful about what is aired? Should they have more warnings? But regardless of where their responsibilities lie, each and every person who rents or buys a movie, turns on the remote control, or the computer, needs to be his or her own guardian.

Through Jewish videos children can learn about their history, people and customs

Fortunately, there are some very educational and informative programs that are available for children to watch. There are likewise videos that have been created for the express purpose of teaching children how to read, write and enhance their math and logic skills. This is vital considering that based on statistics over the past number of years, “nearly four in 10 fourth-graders nationwide failed to achieve even partial mastery of the reading skills needed for school success. In our highest-poverty schools, nearly seven in 10 fourth-graders fail to read at this Basic level,” (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1999).

Another incredible usage is that the television or video monitor can be a vehicle for transmitting Torah ideas and concepts. Through Jewish videos children can learn about their history, people and customs.

As the Talmud states in the Ethics of the Fathers, “Everything G‑d created in His world He created to express His glory,” (6:11). This teaches us that the media, internet, television and all other technological advances can and must be used as a modem for expressing G‑dliness.

Yet even with the best educational programs, the learning a child will do while sitting in front of a screen is incomparable to a parent or teacher learning with the child.

In the Ethics we find another statement as well: “All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven.” (2:12). To me, this means that not only is it our responsibility and purpose to recognize how there is G‑dliness in all that surrounds us, but even more so, we need to act holy and G‑dly in all that we do. Whether or not our children are watching things that are proper, whether or not they are being exposed to things that will elevate their minds and souls, we are ultimately responsible for creating that environment through our personal and individual actions. It is not enough to rely on something external to achieve this. We cannot allow a pixelized screen to do our parenting for us, even when that external device is being used properly.

Even that "even" is no simple matter. It is not an easy task to ward off everything that is on television and the electronic media that our children shouldn’t be watching. And it's no easy task to ensure that when they are exposed to "good quality" programming that their viewing experience is not passive, but active and involved, through either thought, speech or action. All this takes much work and extensive participation on our part. We must know what our children are watching at all times and be prepared to answer their questions and help stimulate their minds.

As one who often struggles with the desire to grab the nearest DVD, I do have a few suggestions that have at least worked in our home:

  • Decide how much time daily you will allow your children to watch televisions, or a video or anything of the sort. And stick to it! We have found that an educational video can be a great way to end the day or keep them calm and busy after bathtime or while dinner is being made. While a show shouldn’t be in place of playing outside or doing another activity, in can be useful when you want to calm them down or get ready to go to sleep.

  • As much as possible, try to speak about what they have watched. When the program is over, ask your kids what were their favorite parts and why. Ask them what they didn’t like and why. Most importantly, ask them what they learned and what lessons they were taught. Even young children can participate in this. If they are old enough to watch, they are old enough to speak about it.

  • We cannot allow a pixelized screen to do our parenting for us
  • If they love a show so much, rather than playing it over and over, let them become the actors themselves. Have them each play a character and act out their favorite parts. Better yet, for the parts they didn’t like, they can recreate the story. Ask them to make a different ending or to make up additional stories with these characters. Another project is that they can make drawings of these characters and write a story book of what they watched.

  • And then there are all the things they can be doing in place of being home. Some that shouldn’t really require too much parental involvement (and as a full time working mother, I know that I simply can’t be involved in every activity). But, there are books for kids to read, arts and crafts projects that they can do on their own (especially projects that involve stickers and crayons rather than cutting, glue or paint).

  • I have also found that often you can find younger kids, mothers’ helpers, that are around ten or eleven who love to be given the responsibility of playing with children. “Hire” a mother’s helper for very minimal pay to help your kids with art projects or be with them in the backyard, or even read them books. Children should be active even if we are not able to be active with them. You will be amazed at the energy and help even a ten-year-old can provide your children, not to mention the relief it can provide you.

Because when it comes to the temptation of resorting to the television, perhaps most important is to remember one key thing. The only way what is on the screen can affect us and our children is when it is on. And we always have the power to push that little round button to turn it "off."

It may be a long and hard summer, but summer vacation doesn’t last forever (though at this very moment it certainly feels as if it does!). But the same cannot be said about the detrimental effects of a summer spent in front of the television. For if nothing more, it is wasted time—time that could have been used productively. And as parents, we simply owe our children more.