Mention kids and electronics and most parents will assure you they have stringent rules regarding “screen time.”
However, according to Nielsen Media Research, today’s kids are logging over four hours a day in front of the television—and an additional four hours or more a day “working” on the computer and playing video games.
It’s tough to keep children away from electronic media in a world where its characters adorn so many kids’ clothes and beckon from cereal and snack boxes.
It’s especially hard to say no if you’re hooked on TV yourself.
And at the end of the day, when you’re trying to make dinner, pay bills or clean up, it’s nice to have something kids can do … somewhere else.
Asheville mom Jean Van’t Hul confesses that she pops in a DVD for her 2-and-a-half-year-old when she just wants to get dinner on the table.
“We don’t watch TV, but we do have a selection of DVDs that we let our daughter watch in moderation—Harold and the Purple Crayon, The 123s by They Might Be Giants, and Beatrix Potter. She loves them.”
And electronic media does have its place—educational programming has grown increasingly polished, video games can strengthen manual dexterity and basic computer literacy is pretty much a must.
But we all know by now the heavy fallout of too much screen time. Statistics have shown that TV watching has been closely linked to childhood obesity, and it’s easy to see why: Not only does screen time leave less time for physical activities, it encourages mindless snacking. Look at most kids’ programming and you’ll see an overwhelming amount of ads promoting sugary cereals and processed snacks. The kids in these commercials look healthy and happy, but nobody’s fooled by that anymore. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, “the number of overweight children ages 6-11 has doubled and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980.”
Return to the real world
Which is almost old news at this point. However, Robert Kesten, executive director of the Center for Screen Time Awareness, offers some insight into the timing of this big transformation. Around 1980, the cable industry started developing niche programming for different members of the family; accordingly, televisions started going into multiple rooms in the house, and watching TV became a solitary rather than a shared experience. Kesten says that we must “deal with the loneliness our society is establishing as the norm.”
This loneliness is especially detrimental to children, who need interpersonal skills they can only develop from being out in the real world and interacting with other people.
If our mothers were right and TV does in fact rot our brains, we should not underestimate the role of advertisers in the process. “Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills,” an NPR story that aired Feb. 21, explained how children’s play changed forever after advertisers started running toy commercials year round in 1955. Referencing the research of Brown University cultural historian Howard Chudacoff, correspondent Alix Spiegel reported: “During the second half of the 20th century … play changed radically. Instead of spending their time in autonomous shifting make-believe, children were supplied with ever more specific toys for play and predetermined scripts. Essentially, instead of playing pirate with a tree branch they played Star Wars with a toy light saber.”
Cutting the cord
Imaginative, screen-free play sounds ideal. But it’s increasingly difficult to unplug your kids. After all, everything is a television now: even iPods, cell phones and computers can download programming. Also, screens are turned on everywhere: airports, restaurants and probably at grandma and grandpa’s house.
However, it may be worth the effort to begin screen-weaning. Consider the purpose of your child’s screen time at home: Is it for entertainment? Learning? Is it to give you a break? Start a log to get a clear idea of how much screen time they’re actually getting. You might be surprised.
Finally, think hard about how much time you’d like them to spend screen-bound. Then make a plan, stay committed and set a good example. Even a small change can make a big difference. Need a date to kick-start your goal? The 14th annual “TV Turnoff Week” (www.tvturnoff.org) happens April 21-27. Kesten calls it a “celebration of life, family, friends and the real world.”
[Asheville-based Sarah Welch is mother to Marlise, a screen-free 2-year-old who enjoys playing “Ring Around the Rosie” and painting.]