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The Real Mom's Guide to Kids and TV

For my family, it all began with Pooh. My son was barely 2, and I couldn't wait for him to meet that silly ol' bear. So as soon as it seemed Henry could sit still long enough, I ran out and bought...the video. That's right. Not the beloved A.A. Milne book but the Disney movie. In fact, I bought the whole Disney Home Video collection of Pooh and his pals. Cherished cartoon characters from my childhood days that I couldn't wait to revisit with my own offspring. Every afternoon Henry and I sat down in front of the television and laughed and sang and hugged each other tight each time Pooh and Christopher Robin were reunited. I like to think that Henry enjoyed this as much as I did.

But having introduced him to the delights of television myself, how could I blame him when his loyalties were transferred to even more exciting fare? Soon Scooby-Doo replaced Pooh, and the clock on Henry's TV consumption began ticking. The types of entertainment media expanded to include other home videos, television shows, educational software, and -- as soon as Henry was old enough to manipulate a joystick -- video games.

Many parents, wiser and firmer than I, are doing everything they can to shore up their child's defenses against the onslaught of entertainment media beamed into households today. Still, it never feels like quite enough, especially when the number of channels, DVDs, games, and other home-entertainment outlets seems to increase exponentially as the kids grow older. Meanwhile, mounting piles of studies blame TV for just about every childhood ill -- from obesity to aggression to problems in school. Do TV and its progeny really deserve this bad rap?

Alix Finkelstein is the mother of Henry, 11, and Margaret, 7.

How much is too much?

Last spring, when researchers in Seattle showed a link between TV viewing and symptoms of ADHD in children, headlines all but heralded the study as proof that TV shortens kids' attention span. What the researchers found was that among the children studied, those who watched TV at ages 1 and 3 were at greater risk for developing attention difficulties at age 7 than those who didn't watch it.

Despite the dramatic headlines, "the study is not proof that TV changes brain activity," says Jeffrey Newcorn, M.D., a researcher on ADHD and an associate professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. ADHD is highly heritable, he says, and the researchers didn't investigate whether the children with concentration problems had parents or relatives with the disorder. And although ADHD is not usually diagnosed until kids are school-age, those with the disorder can exhibit the symptoms, such as impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and aggressiveness, well before school begins. "It may be," says Dr. Newcorn, "that the increased television watching is a consequence of the ADHD, not a cause."

Of course, the most common charge leveled against TV is that children watch too much of it -- up to four hours a day, according to some reports. Kids glued to the tube, the thinking goes, chow down on fattening foods, rarely step out their front door, and pack on the pounds. But even some of that stereotype is being debunked. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin studied the media habits of more than 2,800 kids up to age 12 and found only a limited connection between weight and TV time. Whether they watched a lot of television or a little, the heavier children were just as active -- sometimes more so -- as the thinner ones. Maybe TV alone isn't to blame for obesity.

There's no doubt that TV is a universal activity within American households. A whopping 78 percent of 4- to 6-year-olds tune in daily, according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. But the same study also found that the average screen time per day was closer to two hours than four for kids ages 6 and under. (Not surprisingly, heavier TV viewing went hand in hand with TVs located in kids' bedrooms.) Even so, the time that kids spend watching TV is time they don't spend doing something else that may be better for them, whether it's playing soccer, drawing with crayons, building with blocks, or just daydreaming.

TV as a tool

For many parents, TV has become the antidote to an increasingly busy life. "I don't mind having my boys zone out sometimes. We all need time to do so -- particularly my highly scheduled kids," says Jessica Benson of Brooklyn, New York, mom of Nicholas, 10, and Connor, 7.

"My first-grader, Phoebe, has school, homework, gymnastics once a week, and a little sister to play with!" says Lisa North of Brookfield, Connecticut. "I myself get downtime by watching TV after a busy day. It relaxes me. So, for Phoebe, TV can be the same type of thing."

Nevertheless, North acknowledges a certain amount of guilt about her permissive rules on television. "TV is like a babysitter for me," she says, "especially for my four-year-old. And my oldest loves to play on the computer and for a while was obsessed with her Game Boy, which her grandmother gave her without asking me first. My rule now is that she can use it only at her grandmother's house."

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) urges parents to limit TV, movies, and video and computer games to no more than one to two hours per day -- and, particularly, to restrict content to nonviolent fare. ("Violent" is defined as any effort on the part of one character to physically harm another.) But family life varies too considerably for real families to follow such a formula faithfully every day. And in the face of children's appetite for television (and a parent's powerful need for rest on Saturday morning), these recommendations, at best, augment caring parents' anxiety and, at worst, seem willfully oblivious to the media-saturated world families deal with every day.

The right guidelines for your family

Despite the deluge of well-meaning advice, most moms tend to rely less on outside guidance and more on their own values and personal experience when deciding how much is too much television. For instance, Sara Joray of Zionsville, Indiana, a mom of three, ages 11, 8, and 3, says, "I don't really restrict screen time at all. When you've got active kids -- as two of my three are -- you welcome the breather when one finally sits down and watches TV!" For Natalie Costello of Evanston, Illinois, it's a different story. "I prefer that the TV my two kids watch have a positive message, and I try to limit the commercials. I have to be careful with my son, who's five. We try to limit the TV to an hour or less a day -- or he'll enter 'the zone' and become oblivious to everything around him."

"Hey, the AAP guidelines are unrealistic," says Michael Brody, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's Committee on Television and Media, "and I helped write them!" Family life is complicated enough, Dr. Brody says, and it's just too difficult for some moms and dads to severely restrict all screens. Three or four hours a day of screen time is too much, and if a child is spending that much time with 'screens,' parents do need to reevaluate, he says. But numbers below that can't be generalized for all families on all days.

"Over the years, I've tried setting limits on TV, but like many goals I've set for myself and my kids, the strict rules have evaporated in the Atmosphere of Good Intentions," concedes Karyn Bresnahan of Hope, Maine, whose daughter, Meghan, is now 12 and son, Christopher, is 8. "When the kids were younger -- like three and seven -- I tried, but there were always battles. So now screen time is something that I consider part of the daily judgment call. You know, is it raining outside? Is a friend over? That's how I decide how much screen time they get."

"The fact is, TV is a way to veg out and have fun that kids seem to need," says Dr. Brody. But allow time for other things. "A child needs to experience the real world -- smell the flowers, touch sand -- with parents," he says. Many moms and dads find that the best way to counteract the mesmerizing nature of television is to make clear rules and stick with them. "The ¿no TV on weekdays' rule has been in place in our home since our kids were little," says Laura Rolfes of Cincinnati, whose kids are now 14, 12, and 9. "And it's extremely easy to enforce: Obviously, if it's Tuesday, the TV should not be on."

Judging the stuff that's on the TV

Having made peace with, or at least mapped out the limits for, watching TV, you then have to face the more difficult task of deciding what you'll allow your children to watch. For Maggie Harty, a mother of three girls, ages 7, 5, and 2, in Brooklyn, New York, limiting channel access kills two birds with one stone. "I only allow public television and DVDs," she says. "By limiting the options, the girls limit their own viewing. Even for my three, there's only so much Dragon Tales and Cyberchase they can stand."

Perhaps nothing perturbs parents more than the vast quantity of violent programming on television. But much of the violent media for kids is packaged as fast-paced, action-packed, and often humorous fun. Does watching Daffy Duck blow his top (literally) mean our kids will rage uncontrollably too? Craig Anderson, Ph.D., chair of Iowa State's department of psychology and a leading researcher on the effects of media violence, is convinced that watching TV violence -- even the cartoon kind -- increases the likelihood of violent and aggressive behavior in kids. "Even many favorite children's movies traumatize kids the first time they see them -- although they can get desensitized to the violence." Anderson acknowledges that the roots of aggression are complex enough that televised violence alone cannot be blamed for a child's poor behavior, but he maintains that it's a significant risk factor. He urges parents to closely monitor what their children watch.

Dr. Brody agrees -- to a point. "For some kids, scary movies and cartoons do cause concern. Again, it's a matter of knowing your child." He recommends that parents preview DVDs, even so-called classics, before they let their child watch them to see if they're right for the whole family.

Similarly, many of the highly sexualized images seen on TV and in commercials are disturbing. "Kids don't understand what's going on, and when they don't understand, they get anxious," Dr. Brody says. And if despite your efforts while watching commercial television, your child sees a steamy come-on for the network's latest nighttime soap? "Kids need reassurance," he says. "Explain to your child that the story isn't real. It's a story for grown-ups, and it's too complicated for her to understand."

What you can do

As with manners, nutrition, and hygiene, it's never too early to communicate standards or enforce important rules.

[BULLET][BOLD {Think of your child's free time as a pie chart.}] Are the parts divided fairly equally? Do screens eat up most of his hours outside of school or daycare? How much time is left for other kinds of fun, such as pretend play, friendships, backyard time, and reading?

[BULLET][BOLD {Think about how you use TV.}] If a half-hour chunk of Toon Disney lets you shower, dress, and pull on a pair of panty hose without snagging them, that, my friend, is worthy TV viewing. A little vegging before dinner, fine. But ongoing use as a sedative? Not so great.

[BULLET][BOLD {Decide how you'll enforce the limits.}] For some families, flexibility is important and the quantity of allowed screen time will fluctuate day by day. Other families prefer (and some kids need) concrete, consistent rules. For young children, clear rules are key: "You can watch two shows, and then the TV goes off." Bigger kids, especially those old enough to peruse the TV guide, may appreciate having a TV "allowance" of a certain number of hours per week that they can choose to use of their own accord. And if they still beg for more? Well, don't be afraid to say no, and turn off the set yourself, if necessary.

[BULLET][BOLD {Last, involve yourself in your child's choice of what to watch.}] Keep televisions and computers in family areas, where adults can supervise and monitor what's on. Preview DVDs and video games, sit down with your kids when they're watching television, and judge the content and commercials for yourself. Don't hesitate to rule out some TV as off-limits because it's just too crass, violent, or sexy. Remember that a lot of entertainment media produced today both titillates and frightens children. It's a relief when parents say no for them. And, finally, talk to them about what they watch.

Ultimately, says Dr. Brody, by setting limits, guiding content choices, enjoying good TV together, and discussing what's not good TV and why, you're teaching your kids to be media literate. "Even four- and five-year-olds can catch on," he says. "If you explain to them what the difference is between a program and a commercial, they get it!

"Look, kids get bigger, and they start making more choices on their own, including what they want to watch," he says. "You want to provide a foundation for them and educate them as to how to make the right choice."