Screen time: Limiting TV and computer games without going overboard

Dear Mr. Dad: My wife has recently begun to worry that our kids spend too much time in front of the TV, computer, and video games. While I agree that it’s too much, I remember watching loads of television as a kid, and I turned out okay. Is all the hype about “screen time” really something to be concerned about?

A: This topic reminds me of the pickle so many baby boomer parents are in when talking about premarital sex or smoking marijuana—how can I tell my kids not to do the things I did when I was their age? My parents weren’t big TV watchers, but I could hardly wait for them to go out for the evening so I could settle into a comfortable evening of Batman, Superman, The Three Stooges, and a lot more. So why worry about our kids doing the same? Well, there are two issues here: content and time.

Content
Since children’s television was deregulated in 1982, violence and sexuality have skyrocketed. Air time for war cartoons on broadcast TV has increased from 1.5 hours per week in the early 80s to over 40 hours today. And that’s not counting cable. In 1982, children’s programs featured an average of 18 violent acts per hour. Now we’re up to 27. And study after study shows a direct correlation between witnessed violence and aggressive behavior and reduced empathy. According to an American Psychological Association task force report on television, by the time the average child leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed at least 8,000 murders and over 100,000 other assorted acts of violence on television.

Add violent video games and questionable Internet content – neither of which we had as kids – and you have a genuinely troubling issue of influences. Content screening software and V-chips aren’t enough; we have to spend the time and effort checking ratings, reading parent reviews, and finding out what’s getting to our kids. It matters. One great source of information is Common Sense Media, www.commonsensemedia.org .

Time
Screen time is relatively passive, scripted time. It’s less creative and less actively engaged than a host of other activities. That makes it ideal for a little downtime but a real problem if it becomes the main event.

Kids spend about 33 hours per week in school. But although TV time hasn’t actually increased much since we were kids, when you add computers and video games into the mix, today’s kids spend 45 hours in front of one kind of screen or another—that’s a whopping 85 percent of their free time! This, even more than content, is a tragedy. That’s time they are not developing social skills, interacting with family, reading, being physically active, or engaging in imaginative play.

So what to do?

    Set limits and enforce them. Most child development experts suggest keeping total screen time under two hours a day. Have kids select a few favorite shows or online activities and avoid surfing around to “see what’s on.”
    Offer alternatives. Give your kids options beyond the screens. Families that encourage music, reading, creative play, sports, and nature activities will find that screens naturally play less central roles in their kids’ lives.
    Get the TV out of your child’s room. In one recent study, researchers found that 70 percent of students who had their own TV scored "significantly and consistently" lower on math, reading, and language-arts tests. Other studies have linked a TV in the child’s room to an increase in obesity, increased risk of becoming a smoker, and a disruption of sleeping patterns.

As with all family policy issues, the earlier you begin, the better, but it’s never too late to reap the benefits of setting clear and reasonable limits. And never forget the importance of explaining the reasons behind the policy. Kids who are given the reasons for the rules will be better able to establish their own rules and regulate their own behavior later in life.