Most kids plug into the world of television long before they enter school. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF):
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV and that those older than 2 watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of quality programming.
The first 2 years of life are considered a critical time for brain development. TV and other electronic media can get in the way of exploring, playing, and interacting with parents and others, which encourages learning and healthy physical and social development.
As kids get older, too much screen time can interfere with activities such as being physically active, reading, doing homework, playing with friends, and spending time with family.
Of course, TV in moderation can be a good thing: Preschoolers can get help learning the alphabet on public television, grade schoolers can learn about wildlife on nature shows, and parents can keep up with current events on the evening news. No doubt about it — TV can be an excellent educator and entertainer.
Still, too much TV can be a bad thing:
Children's advocates are divided when it comes to solutions. Although many urge for more hours per week of educational programming, others assert that zero TV is the best solution. And some say it's better for parents to control the use of TV and to teach kids that it's for occasional entertainment, not for constant escapism.
That's why it's so important for you to monitor the content of TV programming and set viewing limits to ensure that your kids don't spend too much time parked in front of the TV.
To give you perspective on just how much violence kids see on TV, consider this: The average American child will witness 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18. Kids may become desensitized to violence and more aggressive. TV violence sometimes begs for imitation because violence is often promoted as a fun and effective way to get what you want.
Many violent acts are perpetrated by the "good guys," whom kids have been taught to admire. Even though kids are taught by their parents that it's not right to hit, television says it's OK to bite, hit, or kick if you're the good guy. This can lead to confusion when kids try to understand the difference between right and wrong. And the "bad guys" on TV aren't always held responsible or punished for their actions.
Young kids are particularly frightened by scary and violent images. Simply telling kids that those images aren't real won't console them, because they can't yet tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Behavior problems, nightmares, and difficulty sleeping may follow exposure to media violence.
Older kids also can be frightened by violent images, whether they appear on fictional shows, the news, or reality-based shows. Reasoning with kids this age will help them, so it's important to provide reassuring and honest information to help ease fears. However, consider not letting your kids view programs that they may find frightening.
TV is full of programs and commercials that depict risky behaviors (such as drinking alcohol, doing drugs, smoking cigarettes, and having premarital sex) as cool, fun, and exciting. And often, there's no discussion about the consequences of those actions.
For example, studies have shown that teens who watch lots of sexual content on TV are more likely to initiate intercourse or participate in other sexual activities earlier than peers who don't watch sexually explicit shows.
Alcohol ads on TV have actually increased over the last few years and more underage kids are being exposed to them than ever. A recent study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) found that youth exposure to alcohol ads on TV increased by 30% from 2001 to 2006.
Cigarette ads are banned on television, but kids and teens can still see plenty of people smoking on programs and movies airing on TV. This kind of "product placement" makes behaviors like smoking and drinking alcohol seem acceptable. In fact, kids who watch 5 or more hours of TV per day are far more likely to begin smoking cigarettes than those who watch less than the recommended 2 hours a day.
Health experts have long linked excessive TV-watching to obesity — a significant health problem today. While watching TV, kids are inactive and tend to snack. They're also bombarded with ads that encourage them to eat unhealthy foods like potato chips and empty-calorie soft drinks that often become preferred snack foods.
Studies have shown that decreasing the amount of TV kids watched led to less weight gain and lower body mass index (BMI).
According to the AAP, kids in the United States see 40,000 commercials each year. From the junk food and toy ads during Saturday morning cartoons to the appealing promos on the backs of cereal boxes, marketing messages are all around kids. And to them, everything looks ideal — like something they simply have to have. It all sounds so appealing — often, so much better than it really is.
Most kids under the age of 8 don't understand that commercials are for selling a product. Children 6 years and under can't distinguish program content from ads, especially if their favorite character is promoting the product. Even older kids may need to be reminded of the purpose of advertising.
Of course, it's nearly impossible to eliminate all exposure to marketing messages. You can turn off the TV or at least limit kids' watching time, but they'll still see and hear plenty of ads for the latest gizmos and must-haves.
So what you can do? Teach kids to be savvy consumers by talking about the products advertised on TV. Ask thought-provoking questions like, "What do you like about that?," "Do you think it's really as good as it looks in that ad?," and "Do you think that's a healthy choice?"
When your kids ask for products advertised, explain that commercials and other ads are designed to make people want things they don't necessarily need. And these ads are often meant to make us think that these products will make us happier somehow. Talking to kids about what things are like in reality can help put things into perspective.
To limit kids' exposure to TV commercials, the AAP recommends that parents:
Two ways you can help monitor what your kids watch are:
For many, the rating system and V-chip may be valuable tools. But there is some concern that the system may be worse than no system at all. For example, research shows that preteen and teen boys are more likely to want to see a program if it's rated MA (mature audience) than if it's PG (parental guidance suggested). And parents may rely too heavily on these tools and stop monitoring what their kids are watching.
Also, broadcast news, sports, and commercials aren't rated, although they often include depictions of violence and sexuality. The rating system also doesn't satisfy some family advocates who complain that they fail to give enough information about a program's content to allow parents to make informed decisions about whether a show is appropriate for their kids.
So even if you've used the V-chip to program your TV or a show features the age-group ratings, it's still important to preview shows to see whether they're OK for your kids — and to turn off the TV if they're not.
Here are some practical ways to make TV-viewing more productive in your home:
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015
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