It’s not uncommon these days for pediatricians to ask how much television your child watches each day. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued guidelines suggesting that children under the age of two should watch no television at all and children over age two should not watch more than two hours each day. Still, the average child in the United States watches an average of three to five hours of television daily, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s no wonder. Television captures children’s rapt attention, freeing parents to take care of other matters. It also can be educational, exposing children to current events, history and other cultures and people; a catalyst for reading or important discussions with parents about sensitive or controversial issues; and a socialization tool that allows children to share cultural experiences with others.

But television carries several perils too. Aside from childhood obesity which has garnered much attention recently, too much television or the wrong kinds of programs foster consumerism and the notion that children need certain material things to validate themselves; reinforce racial and gender stereotypes; and replace necessary and valuable social interaction in the real world. Further, even when not explicit, sexual or violent content can be implicit even in youth programming — sending numerous unhealthy messages to kids.

Without question, those down sides prove that the amount of television a child watches does matter. And how much is too much will vary from child to child.

Assessing whether your child watches too much television requires a potentially uncomfortable level of honesty with yourself. Begin by asking yourself the role of TV in your children’s life. Has it become a babysitter? A friend? A role model? If your children are excited to turn off the TV to talk to you, they’re probably not watching too much. But if they would rather watch TV than talk to you or play with friends, that’s an indication they’re watching an unhealthy amount.

If you want to reduce the amount of television your child watches, these tips can help:

Discuss the role of television in your home. Explain your concerns about television to your child and discuss alternatives together. While you certainly want your child’s input, remember you are the parent and balance the discussion and the outcomes with your authority and responsibility. With children who are too young to understand or reason, simply turn off the television and replace the void with more meaningful activities.
Provide alternatives. If you have a TV in your home, keep it out of your child’s bedroom and instead put it in a room that holds a wealth of other interesting activities, such as board games, books, music, toys, puzzles and other fun items that can surpass the entertainment value of television.
If you have very young children and have become accustomed to using TV as a babysitter while you prepare dinner or tend to chores such as laundry, you can fill the void by fitting your children into your activity. When you’re cooking dinner, give your toddler pots and pans to play with on the floor of the kitchen. When it’s time to do bills, give your child a crayon, paper and calculator so she or he can work alongside you. In mimicking our daily chores and responsibilities, children pick up on our responsible example, and, best of all, families spend more time together.

Limit the hours when the TV can be on. Some families ban television on weekdays. Others use it only as an earned privilege. Whatever you choose, you can help your children not only budget their time better, you can also help them prioritize and schedule which programs are worthy of their precious viewing time.
Watch with your child. It’s important to know what your children are watching, not only to assess whether the tone and messages are appropriate but also to take advantage of teaching moments the programs may provide.
Set a good example. Limit your own television watching and spend more time engaging in a variety of activities and meaningful living with your children. Children will do what you do, not what you say to do. Whether you live your life vicariously through television or you live it for yourself through fulfilling, interesting experiences with others, you can expect your children to do the same.
As published in the 2007 October Edition of the Vernon County Broadcaster.