How Much TV Should Kids Be Allowed To Watch?

The issue of kids' exposure to TV doesn't throw off as many sparks as it used to. There is general agreement that a child's exposure to television of any type should be limited. There is also general agreement that we are completely ignoring this advice. I remember as a kid waiting every Sunday night for Walt Disney's "Wonderful World of Color" to come on, and loving it. I also remember my parents turning off the television when it was over. We don't do that anymore.

Americans two years of age and older now spend an average of four hours and 49 minutes per day in front of the TV -- 20 percent more than 10 years ago. And we are getting this exposure at younger and younger ages, made all the more complex because of the wide variety of digital screen time now available. In 2003, 77 percent of kids under six watched television every day. And children younger than two got two hours and five minutes of "screen time" with TVs and computers per day.

What effect might this have on our children's brains? It's not good news.

For decades we have known of the connection between hostile peer interactions and the amount of kids' exposure to television. The linkage used to be controversial (maybe aggressive people watch more TV than others), but we now see that it's an issue of our deferred-imitation abilities, coupled with a loss of impulse control. One personal example: When I was in kindergarten, my best friend and I were watching "The Three Stooges," a 1950s TV show. The program involved lots of physical comedy, including people sticking their fingers in other people's eyes. When the show was over, my friend fashioned his little fingers into a V, then quickly poked me in both eyes. I couldn't see anything for the next hour and was soon whisked to the emergency room. Diagnosis: scratched corneas and a torn eye muscle.

Other examples come from studies that looked at bullying, attentions spans and the ability to focus, and secondhand exposure to TV. Watch this video to find out the results:

Disturbing stuff. Since the first studies on television, researchers have discovered that not everything about TV is negative. The effect depends upon the content of the TV show, the age of the child, and perhaps even the child's genetics. Before age two, TV is best avoided completely. That includes videos that claim to be baby brain-boosters. (More on that, and video games, in my new book, "Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart, Happy Child from Zero to Five.")

After age five, the jury is out on this harsh verdict -- way out, in fact. Some television shows improve brain performance at this age. Not surprisingly, these shows tend to be the interactive types ("Dora the Explorer," good; "Barney and Friends," bad, according to certain studies). So, although the case is overwhelming that television exposure should be limited, TV cannot be painted with a monolithic brush.

Here are a few recommendations for TV viewing the data suggest:
  1. Keep the TV off before the child turns two. I know this is tough to hear for parents who need a break. If you can't turn it off -- if you haven't created those social networks that can allow you a rest -- at least limit your child's exposure to TV. We live in the real world, after all, and an irritated, overextended parent can be just as harmful to a child's development as an annoying purple dinosaur.

  2. After age two, help your children choose the shows (and other screen-based exposures) they will experience. Pay special attention to any media that allow intelligent interaction.

  3. Watch the chosen TV show with your kids, interacting with the media, helping them to analyze and think critically about what they just experienced. And keep the TV out of the kids' room: Kids with their own TVs score an average of eight points lower on math and language-arts tests than those in households with TVs in the family room.
More parenting videos on brainrules.net detail key insights from the book, from how to deal with temper tantrums to the surprising way a "cookie test" can predict SAT scores.

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