TV Time for Kids and Teens: How Much is Too Much?

Sobering national study spurs cautionary notes and inspiring ideas from local residents.

I admit to a knee-jerk "just say no" reaction at  most requests for TV viewing by my 12-year-old son. I envision that any relaxation of my vigilance will create the chink, that provides the toe-hold, that opens the gaping maw that devours every ounce of intelligence, creativity, and childlike innocence that boy has left in him. 

And so it was with great interest that I read a recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation concerning media use of 8-to-18-year-olds over the past decade.  Yikes. The average young person in this cohort watches about 4-1/2 hours of TV a day, compared with watching fewer than 4 hours per day just five years ago. 

That's in stark contrast to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation that kids under age 2 have no screen time, and that kids older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming. 

The multiple and near-constant opportunities for kids to access TVs and other screens in their homes may be the the culprit for the increase. The already alarming 4-1/2 hours a day average shoots up to 6 hours a day in homes where the TV is left on most of the time, and to 5-1/2 hours a day among kids with a TV in their bedrooms, according to the study.

And the other ways in which kids consume their screen time – via cell phones, MP3 players, the internet, and time-shifted viewing from DVRs – now accounts for about 40 percent of their total screen viewing. 

But there's hope.

Elementary schools in the Katonah-Lewisboro School District are among the thousands of schools nationwide who will participate in TV Turnoff Week on April 19th thru the 23rd.  Eileen Lynch, a Cross River mother of three children in KL schools, recounts her first TV Turnoff Week experience a few years back.

"My children, who would typically watch children's shows on the kitchen TV while they were having breakfast, were finishing breakfast sooner, and we actually had some time to play before the bus came." She had an on-the-fly brainstorm to get them moving. 

"I put the "Walk the Line" soundtrack on the CD player," she said. "We all danced to Ring of Fire." 

Katonah's Marlene Linz is in the happy situation of finding TV Turnoff week to be largely irrelevant for her family.  "When our three kids were toddlers, we'd let them watch the children's shows we felt really good about.  Once they started school, we just turned off the TV completely." 

And, with the exception of an occasional DVD on the weekends, they have never turned it back on.  Their two 7th grade daughters and 3rd grade son use their free time to play, read, do their homework, visit with friends, and get cajoled into helping with dinner.  "Believe me, my husband and I are not smug about this.  We're grateful that we both agreed on this as new parents, got the TV out of the kids' consciousness early, and that so far it's not been a battle." 

Psychotherapist Gary Silverstein, Katonah resident and father of two,  considers television viewing as just one component--along with video gaming and computer use--of the important "screen time" metric.  And, he says, it should all be limited. 

"I often have concerned parents contacting me for professional advice because their child is spending eight hours a day on a screen," he said. Silverstein recommends  exercising parental authority to turn the screens off.

"The time children spend in front of screens prevents them from imagining, from unstructured play, from interacting with other human beings. If you love them, it's a battle worth having,"  he said.

I'm listening. I plan to follow some of the recommendations I've heard, from playing music, board games and cards, dipping into a good book, lingering longer at the dinner table and taking a family walk.  I've discovered there's something very satisfying about listening to baseball on the radio with cold drink in hand.  With apologies to John Lennon, often "TV is what happens when you've not made other plans." 

I, for one, plan to make plenty.

Lisa Buchman April 13, 2010 at 09:06 PM
What's your strategy for decreasing time in front of the screen?
Lisa Buchman April 15, 2010 at 02:38 PM
Since I've started this full-time job, it's even harder to say no to my 5 and 7-year-old's pleas for extra screen time. We implemented timers, that give a five-minute warning, when their 30 minute gaming time is over. This way they are in charge of turning off the games themselves, and if they don't--no Wii the next day. It seems to work--most of the time! Any other ideas?


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