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TV Time: A Guide for Setting Limits

If yours is like most American families with kids under age 5, your child probably watches between three and four hours of television a day. That's a lot of screen time, expecially considering the American Academy of Pediatrics' recent recommendation that children under 2 not watch any TV. But whether their kids watch a lot or a little, many parents wonder, how much is too much? How can I minimize negative influences? When do I step in and when do I stand back? We asked a range of experts to answer some of the most common questions parents ask about the effects of TV on their kids. Here's what to know to help you make the right choices for your child.

Why do some shows frighten my 2- or 3-year-old, even when they don't seem to be scary?

While children under 4 are most frightened by characters that look deformed or grotesque, even when they're supposed to be benevolent and kind, like E.T., parents often can't predict what's going to scare a young child. Kids develop emotionally at different rates, so what frightens one 3-year-old may not frighten another. And because children under 5 or 6 can't differentiate between fantasy and reality, telling them something's make-believe won't help to alleviate their fear.

But there are things a parent can do. First, turn off the frightening show. Many people think that it would help a child to see the show to the end, but it's most important to minimize exposure. Then, don't belittle or ignore the fear, and provide plenty of attention and physical comforting. Get her focused on a new activity. And if the fear persists till bedtime, go along with a reasonable exaggeration of bedtime rituals: an extra night-light or some special attention.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, and author of Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them.

TV characters so often represent outdated and limited roles for boys and girls, men and women. I want my daughter to believe she can be anything. Will watching stereotypical characters on TV undermine all I've been teaching her about her potential?

Research suggests that watching TV can shape your child's view of gender roles. In our 1997 study, we asked kids, "What kind of job do you think you'd like when you grow up?" and "What kinds of jobs do you think men and women should have?" The children who watched more TV, particularly shows with gender-stereotypic behavior, were more likely to have stereotypic job expectations for themselves and others. And studies of isolated towns that didn't have TV, and then got it, have found that kids' attitudes become more gender-stereotypic once they get TV.

Teresa Thompson, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of Dayton

The best way to handle having your values contradicted by what your child sees is by inserting yourself between her and the television  -- watch with her. Then you have the opportunity to say, "This is what we just saw on TV, but here is what I believe" or "This is what we believe in our family." So you reinforce your values in terms she can understand. Also, when a child is very young, you can decide what she sees on television, so exert that control while you still can!

Milton Chen, Ph.D., author of The Smart Parent's Guide to Kids' TV.

What is the best action a parent can take concerning kids and TV violence?

Today, kids are exposed to television violence at an earlier age than ever before. And the violence is often without consequence. Much of it is committed by the hero, a character kids like; it's presented as the first resort to solving conflict, and it is often rewarded. Once kids learn this style of problem-solving, the situation may become intractable.

So what can a parent do? You can try to prohibit your young kids from watching violent shows. If that's impossible, because you can't monitor everything they see (at a friend's house, for example), then check out and talk with them about the shows they've watched. Research indicates that parents can negate the bad effects when they mediate what their children see on television.

Studies also show that kids mimic the violent behavior they see. If your child imitates something he's seen that you don't approve of, you can use it as a teachable moment. A young child doesn't necessarily understand the consequences of his actions. So you might ask, "If you did that at preschool, what might happen?"

When you make it clear that you don't approve of violence, your kids are more likely to incorporate those beliefs into their own attitudes, even if they don't live up to them all the time. Remember that media violence may be only one of the many factors that help to shape a child's character; there are many things you do as a parent to neutralize its effect.

Madeline Levine, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of See No Evil.

What should I do if my child prefers watching TV to other activities?

In our study, we compared grade-schoolers who watched more than six hours of television a day with other children, and found that the heavy watchers had higher levels of anxiety, depression, and anger. We're not saying that heavy TV watching actually causes those problems, but we do know that too much television can exacerbate them. Anxious children who watch TV to escape, for instance, are likely to become more anxious no matter what they watch; much of what's on television, including news programs, gives kids the impression that the world is a lot scarier than it really is.

If your kids are watching too much television, you have to wonder what else is going on in their lives. Ask yourself: Why aren't they interested in other activities? Are they seeing enough kids their age? Are they imitating my own behavior? Then turn off the television, and provide your kids with other appropriate activities  -- have plenty of crafts materials on hand, and stacks of books, and outdoor toys. Take the kids to a variety of places: to the library, story hour at the bookstore, a children's museum. And when the TV is on, sit with them at least some of the time so you can help theminterpret what they're seeing.

Mark I. Singer, Ph.D., professor of social work at Case Western Reserve University

How much and what kind of TV is it safe for my young child to watch?

While there are no hard and fast numbers, two hours a day of appropriate programming is plenty on weekdays for a toddler, and maybe a little more on weekends if you include movies on tape. The main question is, what other activities does your child participate in, and is TV interfering with them? If your child has a full life with playgroups or school, homework, playing with other kids in the neighborhood, chores, and family time, then watching a couple of hours of television a day shouldn't be a problem.

Jane Murphy, coauthor of Stay Tuned! Raising Media- Savvy Kids in the Age of the Channel-Surfing Couch Potato.

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