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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.

Under Age 2

The less the better. Face-to-face interaction and hands-on exploration are what babies and toddlers need most, and TV doesn't deliver either. Try to use it sparingly, no more than 30 minutes to an hour a day. Set a good example yourself by not vegging out for extended periods or leaving the TV on constantly. "Model the habits you want your kids to have," says Amy Aidman, Ph.D., a children-and-media researcher at the University of Illinois.

Not particularly important because it's pretty much wallpaper. But it should be attractive and appealing. Teletubbies gets a thumbs-up from Ranny Levy, founder and president of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media, based in Santa Fe, NM. She cites its crisp colors, gentle pace, lively and soothing music, silly humor, and utter predictability. "The kids who watch often sing along, imitate the movements, dance, and clap," she says.

No other shows are designed for children under 2, but the coalition recommends several videos, including So Smart! Musical Instruments (The Baby School Company Inc.), which features colorful stuffed animals and orchestral sounds; Mozart Nature Symphonies (Munchkin Inc.), with outdoor scenes and animals set to Wolfgang's piano music; and Baby Mozart (Baby Einstein), the composer's mellifluous melodies plus goofy sound effects and colorful images of toys, such as spinning tops and wave machines.

Being there, responding when your child talks to the screen or giggles as the Noo-Noo gobbles the leftover Tubby Toast. Of course, doing something else, somewhere else, is often the point. But if a bit of rest is all you need  -- or there are clothes to fold  -- do it beside your little one as she watches.

"Parents and caregivers can't be on all the time," says Zero to Three's Lerner. "I don't see a problem with a one-year-old's watching TV, assuming it's appropriate."

Ages 2 to 4

As little as possible. "The more kids watch, the more they want to watch," says Diane Levin, Ph.D., author of Remote Control Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture.

Look at your child's daily doings and factor in TV as the smallest part  -- no more than one to two hours (including time spent on the computer or playing video games). Be specific, and consistent, about how much is allowed. But offer choices about how your child uses the time (which shows and when), remind him when a period's almost up, and suggest something else to do next.

Keeping TV at bay for toddlers and preschoolers is that much tougher when an older sibling is watching. Tammy Derenak Kaufax of Alexandria, VA, has a 3-year-old, Halle, and a 7-year-old, Matthew. She limits them both to about an hour a day now, but when Halle was born, "Matthew was four and a little more of a TV watcher." Naturally, his sister ended up glued to Arthur and Dragon Tales with him. Kaufax's current tactic for Halle: diversion. "I'll just say we're not going to watch now. We're going to go outside or play a game."

Some families adopt house rules for when it's TV time  -- right before dinner, for instance  -- and when it's not, like during meals. These help cut off begging.

It should be packed with positives and devoid of negatives  -- particularly violence, even if it's animated. Look for shows that model kindness, helpfulness, and respect as well as encourage self-esteem and learning. Steer clear of bad language, bias, and anything frightening. Try to avoid commercials as much as possible: Children don't have the judgment to resist inflated claims.

Old standbys, such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, plus Caillou, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, Theodore Tugboat, and Zoboomafu (PBS); Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, and Oswald (Nickelodeon); and Bear in the Big Blue House, The Book of Pooh, and Out of the Box (Disney Channel).
Watching while your child watches, at least occasionally, both to evaluate content and to take advantage of teachable moments. Parents can applaud how generously Pooh shares, ask how something made Dora feel, point out that Caillou has to go to the dentist too, and use Mister Rogers to explain reality versus pretend. And if something objectionable slips through in a show you've never seen before, you can address it immediately.

There's nothing wrong with using the TV as a babysitter at times, says Robert Schrag, Ph.D., author of Taming the Wild Tube. "If you 'interview' the TV as carefully as you would a human babysitter, it won't cause any harm. In fact, if it keeps you from losing it and yelling at your kids, it's probably good for them."

Ages 5 to 8+

Your child will want to spend more and more time with the TV, the computer, and video games, but continue to try to limit him to one to two hours a day total screen time. Balance computer and video-game usage against TV watching, trading off minutes spent on one with minutes left for the others. Electronic entertainment shouldn't be the only answer to "I'm bored"; champion books, art projects, construction toys, and other imagination builders.

Kaufax says she avoids using television as a reward or a punishment  -- a tactic that, experts say, only increases its importance  -- and instead employs humor to put the brakes on her 7-year-old's viewing. "I'll say, 'This is Matthew when he watches too much TV' and walk around like a zombie."

Exercise vigilance against violence and commercial pressure. Seek shows that have good role models, worthwhile messages (respect for individuals, cultures, nature), educational elements, and useful life lessons (independence, working out differences, responsibility).

As she gets older, expect your child to want to venture beyond commercial-free programming and watch the network and cable shows her friends enjoy. Screen such shows and just say no if the material flies in the face of your standards.

(FOR 5 TO 7) Anne: The Animated Series, Between the Lions, Reading Rainbow, Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat, and Zoom (PBS); Dora the Explorer, Franklin, Hey Arnold!, and Oswald (Nickelodeon); The Jeff Corwin Experience (Animal Planet).

(FOR 8 AND UP) Life With Louie (Fox Kids); The Adventures of Mary-Kate & Ashley (ABC Family); Scooby-Doo (Cartoon Network).

Using TV to teach children about TV. Even commercials can be instructive if viewed together, says Schrag. Question whether a talking toy really would be amazingly fun or a sugary cereal incredibly delicious, and explain that commercials are designed to make you want to buy stuff.

"With kids eight and up, parents have less control," says Diane Levin. "You're not always in charge of what your child sees. So the bigger role for you now is to help her handle and process what she does watch. The good news is, if you've had discussions about what she sees on TV and about making good media choices all along, this will feel natural and comfortable for both of you."

"It's okay if she wants to try watching something you don't think is so great as long as it's not violent," says the University of Illinois's Aidman. "Watch it with her. Tell her why you don't like it," she says.

If it's bad enough, turn it off, as Aidman did years ago when her older son developed an interest in professional wrestling. Kids need to be told no sometimes, she says. "At a certain point, you're not going to be able to dictate. What you want is that your children have a foundation for when they're making decisions themselves."