Screen Time: Media guidelines for parents

By Steven Stolz, MD

Children in the United States watch about four hours of TV every day, and many spend additional hours watching videos or DVDs, playing video and computer games and surfing the Internet.

While there’s no doubt that these pursuits can entertain children, studies show that too much exposure, or exposure to inappropriate content, may lead to aggressive behavior, reduced physical activity, altered body image and increased risk of drug and alcohol use. When children are in front of TV and computer screens, they’re not exploring the outdoors, playing, reading or engaging actively with friends and family.

But here’s something encouraging to remember: Almost all of your child’s media exposure takes place at home. So you can do a great deal to control how the media influences your child. Here are some basics to get you started.

  • Watch with your child. Talk about what you see. Discuss the messages and lessons the stories depict. The same goes for watching the news – the ultimate reality show – which often contains violent or otherwise troubling material for little ones.
  • Set limits. Limit your child’s use of TV, movies, video and computer games to no more than two hours per day. Turn the TV off when you’re not actively watching a show. Put TVs and computers in areas of the home where you can monitor use.
  • Be clear and consistent. Explain your media rules and how they apply even when you’re not present. If you have to veto their selection, explain why and help them choose something more appropriate.
  • Give other options. Watching TV can become a habit for children. Help them find new habits like reading, painting, sports, music, crafts, writing or play time with siblings.
  • Teach fantasy vs. reality. Very young children have a hard time telling the difference between real life and make believe, let alone the difference between a show and an advertisement. Explain that characters and situations on TV and in movies are make-believe and not real.
  • Be a role model. Limit your own TV viewing, and if what you watch isn’t appropriate for the kids, make sure they are not in eye or ear range.
  • Screen for content. TV shows, movies and video games are all rated for content, and several Web sites, such as www.mediafamily.org and kids-in-mind.com, give detailed information on the amount and types of violence, nudity, sex, profanity, etc., in specific movies, TV shows, video and computer games.

Dr. Stolz practices with CHKD Health System’s Pediatric Specialists.