Parent: If You Want Your Kids to Watch Less TV, You Should Too

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There’s a lot of advice about how not to let your kids watch TV. But what’s the most important factor in helping young children to take in television responsibly?

Child development experts say that routinely plopping young children in front of the set when you’re feeling overwhelmed isn’t going to help their mental or physical health. But setting strict limits on kids’ screen time isn’t always effective either. And complete deprivation — removing sets from the family room and kids’ bedrooms — may not be a practical of limiting and controlling what youngsters watch.

What could help in teaching kids about how to watch not just the right amount, but also the best kind of television, is for parents to adopt responsible viewing habits themselves. According to a new study published in the journal Pediatrics, what’s most important in children’s viewing habits is how much TV (or DVDs or online entertainment) parents watch. The researchers interviewed 1550 parents with children 17 or younger about both their own and their children’s screen time, and when possible, they also asked the adolescents about how much television they watched.

MORE: Better TV Habits Can Lead to Better Behavior Among Children

The amount of TV the parents watched predicted the kids’ screen time, and this association was even stronger than that linked to parental restrictions on TV viewing, where the TVs were placed in the home, or how much television parents and children watched together.

On average, parents spent about four hours a day in front of a screen, and those who watched more media had kids who watched more. In fact, every hour that parents viewed TV was linked to nearly an additional half hour of screen time for their kids. There were some differences according to age, however. Restrictions on viewing had some effect for kids aged six to 11, and adolescents reported watching an hour more a day than their parents estimated.

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For over a decade, pediatricians have been recommending less screen time for kids (a maximum of 2 hours a day for non-educational TV) because heavy viewing is linked to obesity, inactivity, poor sleep, and poor academic achievement. “Lots of parents are concerned about how much TV their kids watch,” says Amy Bleakley, lead author of the study and a senior research scientist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania. “We wanted to raise awareness of how their own media habits may be affecting that of their kids.”

On some level, the results are not surprising, since behavior experts say that the popular parental strategy of “Do as I say, not as I do” is virtually never effective in promoting healthy behaviors among children. “We are wired as children to pick up from our environment what we observe quicker than what we are told,” says Dr. Gopal Chopra, a neurosurgeon, associate professor at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business and founder of PINGMD, a medical app company. “Children are mirrors and we must be vigilant of the impact of our behavior, including the exposure to “glass” (technology screens), as they will know it to be OK, and any discipline will fall on deaf ears.”

This is especially important when it comes to screen time, since kids will not only imitate the quantity of parents’ viewing habits but the quality, say parenting experts. If you are using your screen time in unhealthy ways, your kids will pick up on that and follow suit.

MORE: Too Much TV Linked with Thicker, Weaker Kids

While there is some quality television worth watching, says Dr. Carole Lieberman, a psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, “most of the time TV is used as a way to escape from worries or things that are harder—like household chores. When a child sees that a parent escapes responsibility by plopping themselves in front of the TV, kids learn to do this too.”

Reducing the risks of inactivity and poor health associated with heavy viewing, then, may have to start with adjusting parent’s behavior, and not just children’s. Watching less TV is a good start. But child development experts say swapping out screen time to spend time doing other things with your children — such as hiking, playing sports or taking part in art or other projects — that will engage them physically, intellectually or emotionally is even better for their physical and mental health.

“What parents do instead of watching TV teaches kids what to do with their time,” says Vicki Panaccione, a child psychologist and founder of the Better Parenting Institute in Melbourne, FL. “If they’re readers, kids will take time to read, or play or color. If they’re couch potatoes, then they will have little spuds.”