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Kids & TV — A Get-Real Guide

Along with the juice boxes, board books, and bags of crushed Goldfish, moms and dads carry around a load of guilt. So when, in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called for a drastic reduction in the amount of television children watch, the load grew heavier. Cut it out completely for kids under 2, the AAP decreed. Limit older kids to one to two hours a day of screen time (computer included). Get sets out of bedrooms. Avoid TV as a babysitter.

The AAP gave compelling reasons: Children under 2 need human interaction for healthy brain development and don't get it when they're tube gazing. For the over-2 crowd, excess viewing can lead to obesity and underachievement. Television violence breeds aggressiveness. Commercials turn children into ravenous consumers.

But now, three years later, kids are watching as much television as ever. Two- to 11-year-olds view an average of three hours a day, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's the same as the 21-plus hours a week cited by the AAP back in 1999.

While there's little data on younger children, no doubt they're basking in the blue glow too. "The reality is that most parents allow their children TV even if they're under two," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a nonprofit education and advocacy group in Washington, DC.

Perhaps the warning failed to change most families' TV-watching ways because it's just too radical. Jill Herring's 5- and 7-year-old daughters take in two to three hours a day, though it's mostly PBS. "I wish they didn't watch as much," says the Round Rock, TX, mom, who also has a newborn. "I wish I had the energy and time to continuously keep them busy with other activities, but between doing laundry, making dinner, and nursing the baby, I just don't." Television isn't the girls' only entertainment; they read, play games, and go on outings together, Herring says. "But when I have things to do, the TV works."

No kidding. Thankfully, even staunch children's advocates, proponents of media moderation, and AAP members themselves acknowledge that the organization's stand was intended more for shock value than as a practical plan for families. "The purpose was to make parents aware that, overall, there is too much television," says Susan Buttross, M.D., a Jackson, MS, member of the AAP's Committee on Public Education. "The purpose was never to instill guilt."

She and other experts suggest a middle ground between pulling the plug and signing over the remote. "If the bottom line is that you're going to let your kids watch some TV, the next step is, how do you make a good choice about how much and what?" says Lerner.

After all, TV isn't pure evil. "There are positive themes that come across," says Meri Wallace, a Brooklyn, NY, child and family therapist. "Children become bonded around characters and shows on television. A child who's not allowed to watch is left out of social interaction."

According to experts, there are three commonsense ingredients to managing the TV effectively:

· limiting the amount children watch

· making sure what they watch is age appropriate and contains positive lessons about sharing, resolving disagreements, and appreciating varied cultures

· adding value to the viewing experience by watching together whenever possible, discussing issues when they arise on screen, relating TV to life, and just sharing some laughs.

Here are some reality-tested ways to put these recommendations into action, age by age:

Anne Reeks is a contributing editor to Parenting.