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How Much TV is Too Much?

Setting Effective Limits on Kids' TV and other Screen Time

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boys watching TV
Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Between phones, TVs, games, and computers, it's not hard for kids to spend hours upon hours staring at a screen. But, how much screen time is too much? Ultimately, it's up to parents to decide, but the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued some very clear guidelines on the subject, recommending no TV for kids under 2, and only 1-2 hours of quality programming per day for older kids.

Setting Effective Screen Time Limits

  • Involve Kids in the Decisions: You're not just trying to protect kids from too much TV, you're also trying to teach them how to discipline themselves and make good choices. Discuss with them the AAP guidelines, and ask them how much TV they think is appropriate -- within those guidelines. Can they watch every day? Only on weekdays? Which shows are most important to them? What should they do instead of watching TV or playing video games? Kids will stick to the rules better, learn important life lessons, and be less likely to be bitter about the limits, if they are involved in the discussion.
  • Be Consistent: Once you decide on an appropriate limit for kids' TV viewing and other screen time, be consistent. Sure, if a child is sick or something, there may be occasion to bend the rules. But, we all know kids are going to push the limits, so remain strong and teach them an important lesson about self discipline while protecting them from the many possible negative effects of too much TV.
  • Consider the Time and the Place: Should your kids have a TV or gaming console in their bedroom? Many do, but the AAP cautions against TVs in kids' bedrooms. Also, what about TV and movies at other kids' houses? Talk with your kids about your family's rules on movies and video games, and help them decide beforehand what to do if they are at a friend's house and find themselves in an inappropriate screen-time situation.
  • Make Screen Time a Reward: For some parents, attaching screen time to positive behaviors helps curb couch potatoes and get more done around the house. Hand out TV tokens worth 30 minutes each for completed chores, with a maximum earning potential of 2 hours or less per day. Or, you can just make a blanket rule that there will be no TV or game time until homework/chores or whatever is completed.
  • Encourage Quality Programming: It really is an untapped resource -- kids are suckers for a good nature documentary or interesting how-to program. I find it surprising how many tweenage boys are addicted to cooking shows, or the amount of Discovery Channel junkies that are under 14. Even if kids aren't keen on HGTV or Discovery, you can help them choose shows that have a good message or an underlying educational element. Make sure that the TV time your kids do get is TV time that is good for kids.
  • Be Clear About Family Values Regarding Screen Time: Make sure you decide on and make your kids aware of your values concerning the programs they watch. Letting kids know that behavior on TV is not okay in real life, or even to watch on TV or a game, is a great way to help them learn the importance of values and the role they play in life. Maybe millions of other kids play video games where people mow each other down in bloody battles, but if you see a problem with that, gently explain it to your kids and then stick to your guns!
  • Limit Eating in Front of the TV: Snacking in front of the tube is one of those enormously enjoyable but very bad habits! Research has indicated possible links between eating while watcing TV and childhood obesity. Try to limit eating in front of the TV, if allowed at all, to special occasions like family movie night or movie parties.
  • Provide an Alternative: So, the kids have already watched their hour of TV and they're sitting around whining to watch more? Always have a backup plan. Send kids outside to play, or try these rainy day activities to keep them active inside. You can also make a "Boredom Buster" jar. Write all kinds of activities on papers, fold them up, and put them in a jar. For some reason, choosing a random activity from a jar makes the idea seem so much better to kids than if mom just suggests it.

Do Parents' Screen Time Rules Make a Difference?

"Screen-media use has been associated with youth alcohol use, precocious sexual practices, negative body concept, eating disorders, aggressive behaviors, worsened educational achievement,and higher BMI." This statement introduces a study led by Susan A. Carlson and published in the journal Pediatrics. While these negative associations between kids and media are extremely concerning, the study goes on to conclude that, "Children whose parents reported consistent limits and who themselves reported consistent rules about time spent watching television had the lowest prevalence of exceeding recommended limits."

Makes sense, right? When parents set consistent rules, kids tend to follow them. Parents' role is key in kids learning to control themselves and develop healthy TV habits. Not only that, but setting limits effectively can also help ensure that kids are not negatively effected by screen time in general.

Source: Susan A. Carlson, MPH, Janet E. Fulton, PhD, Sarah M. Lee, PhD, John T. Foley, PhD, Carrie Heitzler, PhD, Marion Huhman, PhD. "Influence of Limit-Setting and Participation in Physical Activity on Youth Screen Time." Pediatrics Vol. 126 No. 1 July 2010.

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