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Taming the Tube

Some experts  -- even those critical of today's TV habits  -- say parents needn't feel guilty about how much their kids watch. "TV's a powerful medium combining many pleasurable experiences," says Marie Winn, author of The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life. "And being aware of its power can help you control it." What parents need for this task, experts say, are balance, common sense, and, most important, rules. (Up to 61 percent of moms from the Parenting survey say they have no specific TV rules.) Some basic guidelines:

Set reasonable limits  -- and stick to them. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours a day of quality "screen time," which includes TV, DVDs, and computers, for kids ages 2 and up, and no screen time at all for kids under 2. Of course, enforcing such a limit is easier said than done  -- especially when your child's fussing, the phone's ringing, and dinner's on the stove. Some extra TV time won't hurt (just make sure it's a trusted program or DVD)  -- and it's preferable to a mom at her wit's end. But it's good to remember that you can create downtime with other activities  -- dolls, drawing, blocks  -- that will engross kids in a healthier way.

Don't put a TV in your child's room. "You're asking for trouble," says James Steyer, founder of Common Sense Media, an organization that helps parents make informed decisions about kids' entertainment. "It's best in the family room so you can be involved in your child's viewing."

Have your child ask your permission before he turns on the tube so you're aware of when he's watching.

Watch programs together as much as possible so you know what he's being exposed to and you can answer any questions he might have.

Make viewing time special by having regular family TV or movie nights.

Talk to other parents. If you keep in mind that all families are different, other parents can be a good resource for ideas and support. You may also set similar rules in your homes, which will reassure you when your child visits them.

Don't depend solely on a friend's recommendation for what's appropriate (despite the advice above) unless you know that she shares your values. Sites such as commonsensemedia.org and kids-in-mind.com provide detailed accounts of violence, bad language, and sexuality on DVDs and videos.

Get your partner on the same page so you can enforce rules consistently. At the very least, agree that you'll consult before giving your child the TV green light.

Be a good example. It's difficult to talk to your kids about curtailing TV if you have the set on all the time. If your spouse likes to watch, encourage him to do so in a private area, if possible, so the TV doesn't disrupt others.

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