Parental controls: getting children to watch less TV

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To get your kids to watch less television, a study suggests a simple solution for parents: set firm rules and stick with them.

In a study of the screen-gazing habits of 7,415 9-to-15-year-olds — which included watching TV and playing video and computer games — researchers found that children who strongly agreed with the statement “my parents have rules about how much time I can spend watching TV” were significantly less likely to exceed recommended limits of screen time than children who reported no such knowledge of rules.

However, fewer than half of the 5,685 parents surveyed said they placed consistent TV-watching limits on their children, and fewer than half of the children of these parents reported a clear understanding of how much TV their parents considered too much.

Overall, the survey, published in the July issue of Pediatrics, found that 1 in 4 children watched too much television, exceeding the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendation of no more than 2 hours of quality media time per day for children older than 2. (Babies younger than 2 should watch no TV at all, not even educational DVDs; here’s why.) In addition to children who lacked awareness of parental rules, older teens, boys, African American children and those in lower-income families exceeded AAP limits more often than other kids, the study found.

Factors associated with less TV viewing included physical activity — children who reported playing organized team sports or simply spending their free time doing something that “got your body moving” were less likely than their sedentary peers to exceed the 2-hour-per-day limit.

There is a lot about television that concerns pediatricians, especially the passive nature of TV viewing, according to the AAP, which advises:

The next time your child watches TV, look at her instead of the screen and ask yourself, “What is she doing?” or perhaps more appropriately, “What is she not doing?” Sitting in front of the television set, children are giving up opportunities for more active intellectual, emotional, artistic and physical growth. Instead of playing outdoors, reading a book, conversing, exercising or doing homework, they spend hours sitting, entranced by what is on TV. Children learn best in the context of relationships and meaningful interaction with people they respect.

Further, too much TV increases children’s exposure to violent or aggressive programming and the glamorization of drug and alcohol use, not to mention potentially harmful advertisements that encourage inactivity and super-unhealthy foods.

But the single biggest concern for parents, the AAP says, is the effect of media violence — in television shows, music videos, movies and video games. Studies suggest exposure to violent media can cause antisocial, aggressive behavior in children, make them more likely to hurt others and display callousness toward other people’s pain. That may help explain why the current generation of college kids — “Generation Me,” as they’re known — was recently found to be startlingly short on empathy.

Passive viewing, it seems, may have more than a few actively detrimental effects.