It seems that everywhere we look these days some sort of electronic screen captures our attention. In classrooms, waiting rooms, on the Sky train, in airplanes, sometimes even in bathrooms and taxicabs! Our children spend more and more time in front of the television, staring at computer screens or tablets, or looking at smart phones. These devices are very appealing to children and companies find clever ways to market their products to them beginning at very young ages. Of course they are entertaining and fun and some can encourage social interaction to a certain degree, but frequent, prolonged use is also associated with some serious social and health issues. So how do parents find a healthy balance? Over the next few weeks, I will address this difficult subject through a series of posts, but for this week let’s focus on television.
There is little doubt that television can be really bad for children. Study after study tells us that watching too much television makes kids more likely to be overweight. It interferes with executive functions (critical thinking and decisions making), and increases the risk of attention problems. If they watch programming that contains sex, it can lead them to have sex earlier. It can make them more aggressive. Staying indoors and watching TV can even keep your children’s eyes from developing properly, leading to the observed increases in the number of children who need glasses for short-sightedness. Clearly, it would be better for the physical and mental health of our children if parents listened to the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and allowed their children to watch not more than 2 hours a day. But the reality is that few parents actually limit their children’s access to TV. In the USA, a recent study reported that the average total screen time (television, video games, and computers) for children 11 years old was 3 hours a day. As children enter adolescence, that number goes up! With smart phones and YouTube, screen time is becoming more a part of daily life, not less.
So perhaps what is needed is a change in strategy. If parents cannot or will not limit children’s TV time, maybe they could learn to control the nature of the content their children are watching? A recent study suggests that this is possible. In this study, researchers educated parents of pre-school aged children about the risks of violent programming and the benefits of “prosocial” programming, and gave them practical ways to decrease their child’s exposure to negative content and increase exposure to content that educates, encourages creativity, understanding, and tolerance. They did not talk to them about how long they should watch; they talked to them about what they should watch. And it worked. The children did not watch any less television, but they watched less violent and inappropriate content, and more prosocial content. More importantly, their social competence and behavior scores improved. I think this important study shows that it is essential for parents to be fully engaged and pay close attention to what their children are watching, because it really does affect their mental and physical health. If parents do anything less, they are effectively turning over their parenting duties to media companies and corporations. I also want to be very clear- I am not saying it is OK for children to watch television all day no matter what they are watching. And no child less than two years of age should be watching any TV at all. I still strongly believe parents should shut the TV off and go outside with their children and actually play. In future posts, I will discuss the value of interactive play and also how to make better choices for what content, games and applications may help your children develop in a healthy way.