TV and Children: How Much Do Parents Really Need to Monitor?
By Florence Cherry and Jo Ann Zenger
Most of today's homes have at least one television and many of these
sets are hooked to a commercial cable system that provides a
seemingly limitless number of programs. Moreover, many television
programs are pushing the limits of good taste and decency. Some
parents, who worry that their children are being exposed to violence
and other realities of adult life that they're too young to handle,
tend to say that television is the culprit, but parents need to take
charge of television.
Although parents might prefer that government exert more control or
networks voluntarily regulate themselves, the bottom line is that
it's the parent's job to set limits on children's television
But it's not a good idea to banish the television set to a dusty
attic. In fact, doing so is actually a disservice to children
because the content of television shows is so deeply imbedded in the
popular culture. Not knowing about Barney and Big Bird or Michael
Jordan and Madonna leaves a child the odd kid out. In school, when
the talk is about a certain show, those who are denied television
are left with nothing to contribute.
Rather than eliminating television altogether, take a two stage
approach to influencing children's viewing habits. It starts with
firm limitations on both the program content and the amount of time
young children are permitted to watch.
Limit television for preschoolers
Setting limits on television viewing is critical to your child's
development. Young children are easily attracted to and seduced by
the flashy colors, intense sounds and fast moving images on the
television screen. While a little of this may be O.K., if a toddler
is spending a good part of his day watching television, he's not
doing other things that are more beneficial and even necessary to
Television can be such an exciting medium for learning, but children
need to use it wisely, not waste their childhood by watching things
that are inappropriate or unacceptable. At this stage, there is a
tremendous amount of learning to be done and most of that learning
occurs when the child is playing with his toys and exploring his
Preschoolers may show a preference for certain programs.
Unfortunately, watching one favorite show often leads to watching
television for an extended period of time. Once children start
watching one show, they tend to watch other shows. This reduces the
time a child has left in her day to do other things. Children who
watch excessive amounts of television, spend less time involved in
creative activities and vigorous exercise, and develop an unhealthy
pattern of passivity.
When programs designed specifically for young children go off, the
television should go off. By the time shows with adult content come
on, young children should be in bed. Special seasonal programs such
as "The Nutcracker" may be exceptions to this rule.
Monitor television use by school-age children
As youngsters get older, they should gradually be given more
discretion over program choice, as long as parents continue to
monitor their viewing habits. It's important for parents to spend
time with their children in front of the set, then talk about what
they've seen. Even if your children persist in choosing shows you
don't wholly approve of, you'll be more effective in helping them
develop discriminating taste if you go ahead and let them watch
while continuing to make your opinion clear. Censoring television
programs is largely ineffective with teenagers, because it makes the
show exotic. Rationally evaluating the show is a more effective way
to make your point.
Why parents should worry
There are several other concerns about children who watch a lot of
television. For some children, television is their most important
teacher. If so, what are the lessons being learned? That only
glamorous people populate the world? That people on television don't
get hurt or die even when they are shot or are involved in
accidents? That even serious problems can be solved in a half-hour?
Do you want your children believing these ideas?
A recent study reports that today's preschoolers watch so much
television that, by the time a child enters kindergarten, she
expects the scene to change several times each minute. In order to
make a classroom look like a television screen; the child constantly
looks around the room to see a different scene every few seconds.
This doesn't leave a lot of time to concentrate on the lesson. The
next time you sit down to watch your favorite show, notice how
frequently the scene changes. Is this real life?
Another concern is the amount of violence shown on television.
Exposure to excessive or graphic violence may make children fearful
and anxious. Some children begin to believe that violence is an
acceptable way to deal with conflicts and problems. Some children
are de-sensitized to violence, so that they can't feel empathy for
someone who is hurt or suffering.
Children often believe everything they see and hear on television
commercials. Many high priced, low nutrition snacks and cereals are
advertised at times when children are watching. Candy and soft
drinks are also heavily marketed on children's television
programming. Children who watch a lot of television not only lack
exercise, but tend to eat more and what they usually eat is junk
food. The result, too often, is a child who is overweight.
During the holidays, children are bombarded with ads for expensive
toys. These ads can create desires in children that put them in
conflict with their parents' values.
What can parents do?
What is the solution? Limit the amount of time your child watches
television. Be certain the programs viewed are suitable for her age.
Watch the shows and commercials with your children and talk together
about what you've seen.
While parents need time for themselves, they should avoid using
television to keep their children occupied while they relax and
enjoy "downtime." It's better to be firm about setting reasonable
bedtime hours than to let children watch any program to satisfy your
own needs for peace and quiet.
Parents are so busy that they sometimes stop using plain old common
sense. They may know their children shouldn't be watching a
particular show that they should be in bed but lack the energy to
enforce bedtime rules. Instead of letting it go, take charge. If
your kids accuse you of being too strict or too concerned, consider
it the ultimate compliment. Explain that you're only doing your job,
which is, after all, the most important job in the world.
"Parents Need to Take Charge of Television," Copyright © Florence
Cherry, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, New York
State College of Human Ecology, Cornell University; and Jo Ann
Zenger, Parent to Parent Coordinator, Cornell Cooperative Extension
of St. Lawrence County.