Every morning, before I go to work (in truth, a short commute from kitchen to downstairs office), I put my son in front of the television while mum and I take care of business. He's almost two, and television- and video-watching already seems to be one of his skills. The clever boy has even learned how to turn on the TV, after which he gets up so close to the screen that he must be able to discern every dot. There he stands as if in a trance, his eyes reflecting back a sickly miasma of colour, noise and action. In it all goes: Cartoon Network, Teletubbies, emetic purple dinosaur Barney and weird Swiss penguin Pingu.
It's extremely useful, in order to carve a bit of time out for ourselves. But oh God, the guilt of it; how crushing the obloquy of bourgeois society. We allow our precious junior to watch cartoons? Appalling. One parent acquaintance (admittedly of the kid-upmanship school) has made me feel so bad about Bruno's tiny telly habit that I've recently been worrying about getting the child to do something else - including "creative play", whatever that is - in the vain hope that I can repair the damage caused by TV and enable him to become a fully rounded individual.
I'm not alone in worrying about the effects of television on my offspring. "I feel such a failure when I put them in front of the telly," says one mother, Joanna Perry. "It almost feels like some kind of abuse by neglect." Jon Keate, a father of two pre-school children, admits that he relies on the television at "high traffic times of day - the morning, the early evening, that kind of thing. But I always feel I'm setting myself up for a fall: that it's a pact with the devil. I feel particularly bad about the advertising: that it's going to grow my kids into pester-power nightmares."
Me too. It can't be healthy, and in general, it isn't. The American Academy of Paediatrics released guidelines recommending that kids under the age of two shouldn't watch telly - not even educational shows or nice nature programmes showing courting warthogs. If junior views more than four hours a day (we shouldn't let them watch more than two hours of TV or video a day, say experts), he or she is going to be at risk of obesity, spend less time on homework, read less well - even heighten the chance of becoming a violent thug in later life.
In the UK, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Literacy Trust have joined forces to berate TV for its deleterious effect on the speech of three-year-olds. Tony Blair's favourite think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, has denounced children's television as predominantly cheap, nasty and violent. There's a new device on the market called Screenblock, which mechanically limits the amount of TV watched by children.
Sometimes, it seems that television is a devil in the living room, tempting innocent babes into a life of criminal indolence. Even Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg have revealed that they were restricting the TV habits of their children (they're happy to make it, but don't want the kids to watch). Madonna has pledged "minimal TV" for her children. The point is, there's a vast amount of public concern about kids and television.
But haven't we gone too far with this moral panic? No one would argue that kids should watch more television, but it's time to mellow a bit. For television is extremely useful, particularly to those parents who don't happen to live in a commune or a vast extended family. …