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Limiting TV Time
Q: I know many children who watch television all the time. How should I go about limiting TV time for my child?
A: In many parts of the world, television, and other media (for example, movies, video games, computers, and music) are a regular part of everyday life. In fact, more families in the United States own televisions than own telephones. Studies have shown that in a typical week, the average child between the ages of 2 and 7 spends more than 3 hours per day watching television, playing video games, watching videos, using the computer, and listening to music. Children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend more than 6 hours per day using media, or 47 hours per week -- the equivalent of a full-time job.
Babies' and toddlers' lives tend to be more enriched by direct contact with parents and other caretakers in order to develop appropriate social, emotional, and mental skills. Television programs and videos are created for infants and toddlers and are even promoted as being "educational" or "stimulating." However, research on early brain development shows that young children benefit more from direct interaction with people than from television or video characters.
Media habits begin as early as one or two years of age, so setting limits early in life can help to avoid battles later. Although many of the media programs, songs, and games can be beneficial for children -- with educational, creative, diverse, and thought-provoking content -- concerns also exist about the potential negative influence of the media on children. For example, increased television watching has been associated with childhood obesity and poor school performance. Media violence may increase aggressive behavior in some children, desensitize others to violence, affect schoolwork, and distort their view of the world. Even cartoons geared towards young children may contain acts of violence, and references to tobacco and alcohol.
As a parent, if your child does watch television or videos, at home or with another caretaker, first watch the program carefully yourself, and make sure it is appropriate for your child. Choose only programs on public television or children's videos; both are free from commercials. Consider music videos for children; infants and toddlers enjoy singing and dancing. For children younger than two years of age, limit media time to less than an hour per day. If your family is one of the many who have the television on constantly, take the first step and turn the TV off during mealtimes. If no one is watching the television, just turn it off. Encourage more productive activity!
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.