My beautiful moths and that darn flame: A word on TV & Children

T.V. & children. In my house, I often rename the pair “the moths & their flame.” Nothing really gets me more agitated than open mouth children standing too close to the television and totally zoning me out. I often amuse myself by saying things like, “The house in on fire.” No response. “I’ve decided to cancel your birthday this year.” No response. Or my personal favorite, “I’m not really your mother.” No response. Really?

As a mother, I know that television is often a necessity and is not completely evil.  It got me through a few terrible flu viruses with no other adult in the house and it kept a 21 month old cutie pie sane and content on select rough days when her newborn sister (with undiagnosed reflux) screamed for 22 hrs a day. At the same time, as a therapist, I know how dangerous overusing the television can be for a child.  When I discuss the topic with parents, I find they often are surprised by what I have to share.  In preparation for this blog entry, I learned a few things myself.

As a parent, I think it’s important for us all to consider the following:

•    Any time your child spends in front of a TV, is time NOT spent exploring, creating, imagining, running, climbing, singing, speaking to other children, drawing etc.  

•    The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hrs of total screen time (yes, you need to count the iPad or handheld games) for children over 2 years old and NO TV for children under 2 years of age (no joke).

•    Kids with a TV in their bedroom spend an average of almost 1.5 hours more per day watching TV than kids without a TV in the bedroom.

•    On average, children ages 2-5 spend 32 hours a week in front of a TV—watching television, DVDs, DVR and videos, and using a game console. Kids ages 6-11 spend about 28 hours a week in front of the TV. (This is an 8-year high).  This statistic blows my mind when I think about what a child COULD be doing with that time. Book, anyone?

•    In about two-thirds of households, the TV is “usually” on during meals.

•    Television can interrupt healthy sleep and affect school performance.

•    University of Michigan researchers and their colleagues who investigated whether diet, physical activity, sedentary behavior or television viewing predicted body mass index (BMI) among 3- to 7-year-old children, found that physical activity and TV viewing are most associated with overweight risk.  TV was a bigger factor than diet.

•    A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that watching videos as a toddler may lead to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in later life.  It’s suggested that the quickly changing screens rewire the brain circuitry to crave the flashing visual stimulation, eventually leading the child to move frequently seeking this input (and therefore decreasing their attention span).

Scary stuff. What can we do as parents? Frankly, there’s plenty. Here are some things to start with:

•    View together. If you are going to allow your child to watch TV, watch with them. Use what you have viewed together as a conversation starter. If your child is young, pose simple recall questions, (“Where did Dora go today?” “What does Cookie Monster always say?”).  If your child is older, dig deeper in regards to how people may have felt or how your child may have handled a similar situation to the characters on the show.

•    Be picky. Only allow shows that you have prescreened and find value in.  For younger children, look for shows that don’t have flashing, psychedelic, quickly changing lights. Seek out programming that encourages humans speaking to each other and programming that embraces and promotes early literacy.  Movies often have slower visual movement than TV shows.   For older children, seek out shows that limit violence and promote positive messages and healthy relationships.  Be cautious of anything that has overly sexual themes, drug or alcohol use, or violence. I find the current options on television are limiting, so we tend to seek out older shows on DVD.  Yes, my children are old school dorks and LOVE the Brady Bunch and the Cosby Show! (I sort of do too).  There are websites out there to help parents such as Common Sense Media.

•    Provide options other than television.  Most children will relish the opportunity for interaction with you or engaging in something creative. Go on family walks after dinner instead of TV. Play a board game. Practice playing instruments. Read together. Draw. For younger children, think about what you did as a small child. My guess is it did not involve hours of television. Drag out the pots and pans or blocks. Head to our home page for 3 years worth of play suggestions for little ones aged 0-3 from 1-2-3 Just Play With Me.

•    Be smart and do your research. Expansive studies show that NO TV or DVD programming will make your child smarter. REAL LEARNING occurs in context and is best learned through play.

•    Embrace music. Periods of quiet are important to decrease stress and increase reflection, however if you like “background noise,” turn off the TV and turn on the radio. Explore different genres and eras of music with your children.  Streaming select music stations online makes this easy and fun.  Jazz tonight! Pop tomorrow!

•    Define your limits. Technology makes viewing accessible practically anywhere. Find boundaries that work for your family and stick to them when possible.  For our family, during the school week, our children get no more than 30 minutes a day and we don’t allow viewing in the car unless we are traveling greater than a 90 minute distance.

•    Communicate your decision regarding your wishes for your child in regard to television with caregivers.

•    Turn it off! Turn it off! Turn it off! If you aren’t watching a planned program, turn that TV off. The background noise is distracting and competes with conversation, particularly during meals.

Changing your family’s TV watching patterns can be a big change. Television can be habit forming and changing that habit can be compared to big challenges like quitting smoking or dieting. Setting goals and implementing your changes in steps may increase your chance of long-term success. So decide what is right for your family and try to meet your individual goals most days. Don’t beat yourself up about those days when circumstances lead to more TV than you’d hope for your children – we’ve all been there!  And remember, you really can’t go wrong with Sesame Street!


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