The best way to approach television (and screen time of any kind) is to think of it as refined sugar: You want your kids to enjoy the seductive stuff without consuming it to excess. So you’ll need to stay on top of the time your child spends in front of a screen.
The average American child watches for three to four hours a day, despite the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that kids 2 and older watch no more than one to two hours daily. The AAP recommends that kids under 2 watch no shows at all.
Starting out tough from day one is the key to keeping viewing time under control. It’s a lot easier to relax your standards later than to wean a 5-year-old from a three-times-a-day habit. Here are some tips for monitoring and limiting your child’s viewing time:
Monitoring your child’s watching
- Limit the amount of time your child spends watching. More than two hours a day is too much. To make it seem to your child that he’s watching more — and to keep his little brain from going on autopilot as he watches — break up viewing into 10- to 15-minute increments. Keep screens out of the bedroom and turned off during meals.
- Avoid setting a firm watching time “allowance” for your child. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s surprisingly effective. You may want to let your child come to you when he wants to watch and keep to yourself what the absolute maximum is. That way, you’ll avoid tacitly sending the message that there’s a certain amount he “should” be watching.
- Make screens physically inconvenient. Too often, a screen is a backdrop to family life: It blares away in the den or great room while the kids are playing, Mom’s cooking, or the family is eating. Consider putting the TV in a small, out-of-the-way room in the house (on the second floor, if you have one). Another way to keep the TV from being front and center: Keep it in a cabinet that remains closed when the TV is off.
Choosing what to watch
- Go with calm, quiet programs. Slower-paced viewing gives your child time to think and absorb. Lots of random activity, like the kind in action/adventure cartoons, confuses children. And some research suggests that children who watch violence on TV are more likely to display aggressive behavior. Stay away from scary shows, too. Choose simple programs that emphasize interactivity. Ideal are shows that inspire your child to makes sounds, say words, sing, and dance.
- Watch programs, not television. Rather than allowing your child to sit down and watch whatever is on, select carefully what he is going to watch. Turn off the set when that show is over.
Watch with your children whenever possible. Try not to use videos or television as a babysitter. One study looked at three groups: children with unlimited access to television, children with moderate access who watched without a parent, and children with moderate access who watched with a parent. The last group scored significantly higher academically than did the other groups. That aside, just being there says to your child, “What you do is important to me.”
Help your child become a critical viewer. Even young children can learn to watch without “tuning out.” If you’re watching commercial television, talk about what’s going on in the show and in the ads (and clarify the difference between the two). Encourage your child to ask questions and relate what’s happening in the show to his own life. If you’re watching shows without ads, you can watch when you choose and pause to discuss what’s going on.
Make yourself a role model. Children are most affected by the example parents set, so don’t channel surf or keep the TV on as background noise. If your kids see you eagerly sitting down every so often to watch a specific show and concentrating on what you’re seeing, they’ll recognize the potential for enjoyment that movies and other shows actually promise.