Improving Your Child’s TV Habits

At first glance, television may seem like a good thing: children can get help learning the alphabet on public television, grade school children can learn about wildlife on nature shows, and parents can keep up with current events on the evening news. No doubt about it – TV can be a great educator and entertainer. But whatever its advantages, too much television can have a downside.

Research has shown that children who consistently spend more than 10 hours per week watching television are more likely to be overweight, aggressive and slower to learn in school.

Children who view violent episodes such as a kidnapping or murder on the news, for example, also are likely to believe that the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them.

Research also indicates that TV consistently reinforces gender-role and racial stereotypes. Most children plug into the world of TV long before they enter school: 70 percent of day-care centers use TV during a typical day. In a year, the average child spends 900 hours in school and nearly 1,500 hours in front of a television.

Children should watch no more than one or two hours of television programming a day and none prior to two years of age according to guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). As a parent, you should monitor the content of the TV programming and set viewing limits to ensure your children don’t spend time watching TV that should be spent on other activities, such as playing with friends, exercising and reading.

TV violence sometimes begs for imitation because violence is demonstrated and 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. Adding to the lure of imitation is TV’s freedom from restraint. Children are taught that it’s not right to hit, but television says it’s OK to bite, hit or kick if you’re the good guy. And even the “bad guys” on TV are rarely held responsible or punished for their actions.

The images children absorb also can leave them traumatized and vulnerable. According to a recent study, children ages 2 to 7 are particularly frightened by fantastic, scary-looking things, such as grotesque monsters. Simply telling children that those images aren’t real won’t console them because they can’t yet distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Children ages 8 to 12 are frightened by the threat of violence, natural disasters and the victimization of children, whether those images appear in fiction or on the news or reality-based shows. Reasoning with children this age will help them, so parents should provide reassuring and honest information to help ease their children’s fears.

According to the AAP, there is a link between excessive TV watching and obesity – a significant health problem. Children are inactive and tend to snack while watching TV, and they are bombarded with advertising messages that encourage them to eat unhealthy foods, such as potato chips and cookies and high-fat food, which often become preferred snack foods.

Too much educational TV has the same indirect effect on children’s health. Even if children are watching four hours of Sesame Street, they’re not exercising, reading, socializing or spending time outside.

Children’s advocates are divided when it comes to solutions. While many children’s advocates urge for more hours per week of educational programming, others assert that no TV is the best solution. Finally, some say it is better for parents to control the use of TV and to teach children that TV is for occasional entertainment, not for constant escapism.

It’s important for parents to talk to their kids about what they’re seeing and share their own beliefs and values. If something objectionable appears on the screen, parents can ask their children, “Do you think it was OK when they hit that guy? What else could they have done? What would you have done?”

Parents can limit the number of hours their children spend watching TV by moving the set from the most prominent room in the house to a side room and by keeping TVs out of bedrooms and turned off during meals. TV could also be treated as a privilege that children need to earn, not a right to which they are entitled.

Parents should also check the TV listings ahead of time for programs that the family can watch together – developmentally appropriate and nonviolent programs that reinforce family values, appropriate language and social skills. Try watching TV only when there is a specific program you want to watch instead of channel surfing until something gets your interest. As a parent, you should set a good example by limiting your own television viewing.

The V-chip (V is for “violence”) is designed to enable you to block television programs and movies you don’t want your children to see. All new television sets now should have internal V-chips, but set-top boxes are available for older TVs.

An age-group rating system modeled after the familiar movie ratings has been developed for TV programs. For many, this may be a valuable guide. There is concern that this new rating system may be worse than no system at all: research shows that preteen and teen boys are more likely to want to see a movie if it’s rated R than if it’s rated PG. The rating system also does not satisfy some family advocates who complain that they fail to give enough information about a program’s content to allow parents to make informed decisions about whether a show is appropriate for their child.

The Federal Communications Commission requires that V-chips in new TVs recognize the TV Parental Guidelines and the age-group rating system and block those programs that do not adhere to these standards. Broadcast news, sports and commercials – which aren’t rated – were not addressed, though they often present depictions of violence. So, it’s important for parents to preview shows to determine whether they are appropriate for children.

Turning off the TV will allow you to spend more quality time with your family and friends. Try some of these activities for a change of pace:

• Play board games
• Read stories
• Bake cookies
• Go for a walk
• Start a family hobby
• Plant a garden
• Talk to each other
• Write a letter
• Learn how to knit
• Go ice skating
• Sing a song
• Go to the library
• Build a house of cards

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