Most children plug into the world of television long before they enter school. According to the research:
- children and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a television screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games
- children under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, primarily television and videos or DVDs
- two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of 2 hours a day
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 years old not watch any television and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.
The first 2 years of life are considered a critical time for brain development. Television and other electronic media can get in the way of exploring, playing, and interacting with moms and dads and others, which encourages learning and healthy physical and social development.
As children get older, too much screen time can interfere with activities such as being physically active, reading, doing homework, playing with friends, and spending time with family.
Of course, television, in moderation, can be a good thing: Preschoolers can get help learning the alphabet on public television, grade-schoolers can learn about wildlife on nature shows, and moms and dads can keep up with current events on the evening news. No doubt about it — television can be an excellent educator and entertainer.
But despite its advantages, too much television can be detrimental:
• Television characters often depict risky behaviors, such as smoking and drinking, and also reinforce gender-role and racial stereotypes.
• Children who view violent acts are more likely to show aggressive behavior but also fear that the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them.
• Kids who consistently spend more than 4 hours per day watching television are more likely to be overweight.
Kid's advocates are divided when it comes to solutions. Although many urge for more hours per week of educational programming, others assert that no television is the best solution. And some say it's better for moms and dads to control the use of television and to teach children that it's for occasional entertainment, not for constant escapism.
That's why it's so important for you to monitor the content of television programming and set viewing limits to ensure that your children don't spend too much time watching television.
Television and Violence—
To give you perspective on just how much violence children see on television, consider this: The average American youngster will witness 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18. Children may become desensitized to violence and more aggressive. Television violence sometimes begs for imitation because violence is often promoted as a fun and effective way to get what you want.
Many violent acts are perpetrated by the "good guys," whom children have been taught to emulate. Even though children are taught by their moms and dads that it's not right to hit, television says it's OK to bite, hit, or kick if you're the good guy. This can lead to confusion when children try to understand the difference between right and wrong. And even the "bad guys" on television aren't always held responsible or punished for their actions.
Young children are particularly frightened by scary and violent images. Simply telling children that those images aren't real won't console them, because they can't yet distinguish between fantasy and reality. Behavior problems, nightmares and difficulty sleeping may be a consequence of exposure to media violence.
Older children can also be frightened by violent depictions, whether those images appear on fictional shows, the news, or reality-based shows. Reasoning with children this age will help them, so it's important to provide reassuring and honest information to help ease fears. However, consider not letting your children view programs that they may find frightening.
Television and Risky Behaviors—
Television is full of programs and commercials that depict risky behaviors such as sex and substance abuse as cool, fun, and exciting. And often, there's no discussion about the consequences of drinking alcohol, doing drugs, smoking cigarettes, and having premarital sex.
For example, studies have shown that teens who watch lots of sexual content on television are more likely to initiate intercourse or participate in other sexual activities earlier than peers who don't watch sexually explicit shows.
Alcohol ads on television have actually increased over the last few years and more underage children are being exposed to them than ever. A recent study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) found that youth exposure to alcohol ads on television increased by 30% from 2001 to 2006.
And although they've banned cigarette ads on television, children and teens can still see plenty of people smoking on programs and movies airing on television. This kind of "product placement" makes behaviors like smoking and drinking alcohol seem acceptable. In fact, children who watch 5 or more hours of television per day are far more likely to begin smoking cigarettes than those who watch less than the recommended 2 hours a day.
Television and the Obesity Factor—
Health experts have long linked excessive television-watching to obesity — a significant health problem today. While watching television, children are inactive and tend to snack. They're also bombarded with ads that encourage them to eat unhealthy foods such as potato chips and empty-calorie soft drinks that often become preferred snack foods.
Studies have shown that decreasing the amount of television children watched led to less weight gain and lower body mass index (BMI — a measurement derived from someone's weight and height).
Television and Commercials—
According to the AAP, children in the United States see 40,000 commercials each year. From the junk food and toy advertisements during Saturday morning cartoons to the appealing promos on the backs of cereal boxes, marketing messages inundate children of all ages. And to them, everything looks ideal — like something they simply have to have. It all sounds so appealing — often, so much better than it really is.
Under the age of 8 years, most children don't understand that commercials are for selling a product. Kids 6 years and under are unable to distinguish program content from commercials, especially if their favorite character is promoting the product. Even older children may need to be reminded of the purpose of advertising.
Of course, it's nearly impossible to eliminate all exposure to marketing messages. You can certainly turn off the television or at least limit children' watching time, but they'll still see and hear advertisements for the latest gizmos and must-haves at every turn.
But what you can do is teach children to be savvy consumers by talking about the products advertised on television. Ask thought-provoking questions like, "What do you like about that?" … "Do you think it's really as good as it looks in that ad?" … "Do you think that's a healthy choice?"
Explain that commercials and other ads are designed to make people want things they don't necessarily need. And these ads are often meant to make us think that these products will make us happier somehow. Talking to children about what things are like in reality can help put things into perspective.
To limit children' exposure to television commercials, the AAP recommends that you:
- Buy or rent kid's videos or DVDs.
- Have your children watch public television stations (some programs are sponsored — or "brought to you" — by various companies, although the products they sell are rarely shown).
- Record programs — without the commercials.
Developing Good television Habits—
Here are some practical ways to make television-viewing more productive in your home:
1. Check the television listings and program reviews ahead of time for programs your family can watch together (i.e., developmentally appropriate and nonviolent programs that reinforce your family's values). Choose shows that foster interest and learning in hobbies and education (reading, science, etc.).
2. Come up with a family television schedule that you all agree upon each week. Then, post the schedule in a visible area (e.g., on the refrigerator) so that everyone knows which programs are OK to watch and when. And make sure to turn off the television when the "scheduled" program is over instead of channel surfing.
3. Offer fun alternatives to television. If your children want to watch television but you want to turn off the tube, suggest that you all play a board game, start a game of hide and seek, play outside, read, work on crafts or hobbies, or listen and dance to music. The possibilities for fun without the tube are endless — so turn off the television and enjoy the quality time together.
4. Preview programs before your children watch them.
5. Set a good example by limiting your own television viewing.
6. Talk to children about what they see on television and share your own beliefs and values. If something you don't approve of appears on the screen, you can turn off the television, then use the opportunity to ask thought-provoking questions such as, "Do you think it was OK when those men got in that fight? What else could they have done? What would you have done?" Or, "What do you think about how those teenagers were acting at that party? Do you think what they were doing was wrong?" If certain people or characters are mistreated or discriminated against, talk about why it's important to treat everyone fairly, despite their differences. You can use television to explain confusing situations and express your feelings about difficult topics (sex, love, drugs, alcohol, smoking, work, behavior, family life).
7. Talk to other moms and dads, your doctor, and teachers about their television-watching policies and kid-friendly programs they'd recommend.
8. Try a weekday ban. Schoolwork, sports activities, and job responsibilities make it tough to find extra family time during the week. Record weekday shows or save television time for weekends and you'll have more family togetherness time to spend on meals, games, physical activity, and reading during the week.
9. Watch television together. If you can't sit through the whole program, at least watch the first few minutes to assess the tone and appropriateness, then check in throughout the show.
10. Limit the number of television-watching hours:
- Don't allow children to watch television while doing homework.
- Keep televisions out of bedrooms.
- Stock the room in which you have your television with plenty of other non-screen entertainment (books, children' magazines, toys, puzzles, board games, etc.) to encourage children to do something other than watch the tube.
- Treat television as a privilege to be earned — not a right. Establish and enforce family television viewing rules, such as television is allowed only after chores and homework are completed.
- Turn the television off during meals.
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