2002-10-10 / Other News

How To Use Television As More Than Just A Babysitter

By Carla Glasper, MA

By Carla Glasper, MA

In today’s hectic, often far-too busy world, it can be difficult to find the quality time we’d like to spend with our children. We often try hard to make it happen, but there are also times when we simply give in to the temptation to find a few minutes peace by allowing the TV to do a little babysitting. In many cases, leaving the kids and TV together happens far too frequently.

Consider that recent studies show that the typical American child spends an average of 1,680 minutes watching TV every week. That’s 28 hours per week, 4 hours per day, in front of the TV for the average child. A child watching that much TV will have spent more time with the television than he or she will have spent in the classroom by the time high school graduation arrives. By comparison, one recent study found that the average parent spends only 38.5 minutes per week in meaningful conversation with his or her children (and no, hollering for them to get ready for school doesn’t count).

There’s little question that too much TV has a negative effect. Studies have linked excessive TV watching to obesity, aggressive behavior, lower reading skills and poor academic performance.

However, TV can also provide positive experiences for children. It can allow them to "visit" places and "meet" people they may never visit or meet in person. It can also expose children to new and unique ideas and things, and can provide a wide variety of educational and enriching experiences.

But for that to happen, you have to be involved in your children’s TV watching, both controlling how much and what is watched, and helping to make the TV experience a positive and beneficial one. It isn’t realistic or feasible in most cases to try and eliminate TV completely from our children’s lives. Kids will still find a way to watch.

Instead, try to make some choices that will help your children find a better balance between the drawbacks of TV and its benefits:

Be selective about the programs your children watch. Turn to educational programming from your local PBS station or the Discovery, Learning or History channels. Rent, or borrow from your local library if the service is offered, educational videos appropriate to your children’s ages.

Limit the amount of TV allowed. Time spent watching television takes away from reading, schoolwork, playing, exercise, family interaction, and social development. Encourage and insist on other activities. If your kids are now heavy TV watchers, start a program of slowly reducing the amount of TV time. Reading a book or playing with friends shouldn’t be seen as a "no TV" punishment.

Watch TV with your children. This allows you to relax, while also spending time together and sharing in some of your children’s daily activities.

Make TV time interactive. Talk about what happened on a TV show and what was good or bad about the show. Help your children to learn values from you, not the TV, by talking about your own values as they relate to the program, and by pointing out positive and negative behaviors viewed.

Select developmentally appropriate shows. Even entertainment shows should be ones with content and values appropriate for your children. Emphasize the difference between reality and make-believe, particularly for young children who may assume that all they see on television is acceptable or safe.

Be creative in selecting appropriate times for TV watching. Choose times that work best for you and your kids. A half-hour of TV before dinner can help kids relax and give you time to prepare that meal.

Make TV watching a privilege, not a right. Insist on certain times for home work and studying, or simply for family conversations, when having the TV on is simply not appropriate.

Set the example for your children. Everything from how much you watch, to how you watch (do you watch a specific show, or do you channel surf, showing your kids that you’re just killing time, not looking for specific information or entertainment) will influence your kids’ viewing habits and attitudes.

Setting controls and being actively in charge of TV watching in your household does take time and effort. But the result can be children living fuller, more enriching lives, who see TV as an educational and entertaining experience, and not just a place to waste countless hours.

Carla Glasper is a mental health specialist at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

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