Imagine a product that could make our kids fat, dumb and violent. You wouldn't buy it, right? Well, what if I told you such a product exists and that 99 percent of Americans did buy it and use it every day? Hard to believe? Well, that product is TV and if studies are to be believed, it is wreaking havoc with our kids' lives.
One such study showed that children's programming actually contains more violence than adult-geared shows. Television violence tends to be glamorized and often goes unpunished. Exposure to media violence, including the nightly newscast, can be frightening for young children who have a relative inability to distinguish reality from fiction. The scientific literature has repeatedly substantiated the link between violence observed on TV and violent acts committed by children in the classroom and on the street. Today's programming and advertising are filled with highly sexualized content as well. Teens, striving to fit in, are especially vulnerable to these messages.
TV often makes tobacco, drugs and alcohol look fun or cool. One quarter of all MTV videos contain alcohol or cigarettes. At least one study found a link between the viewing of music videos with later use of alcohol by teenagers.
There are health consequences to our coach potato lifestyle as well. Many studies in recent years have linked television viewing habits with obesity. Time spent in front of the TV is time not spent playing outside or engaging in exercise. Also television advertisers pay good money to ply our kids with images of sweetened and processed foods knowing they will eat more. And they do! On average 100 calories more a day than nonviewers!
And what is all this TV watching doing to our kids' ability to learn and communicate? A 2004 study out of the University of Washington found an association between television exposure at an early age and the development of attention problems at age 7. When I ask parents about the number of hours of TV their children watch in a day, I often hear, "Oh, he doesn't watch it. It's just on." Well, a study published last summer in the journal Child Development found that young children exhibited less focused attention during play when in the presence of such background TV. Another study in 2007 found that television viewing at age 14 was associated with an increased risk of a whole host of academic problems including poor grades, boredom at school, a negative attitude toward school, problems with attention and homework completion and a failure to obtain a post-secondary education.
Bedroom TVs are the worst, adding an hour and a half of viewing to a child's day. An astounding 68 percent of American children have a television in their bedrooms. Children with bedroom TVs also score lower on math, reading and language arts testing than kids without bedroom TVs. Boys with bedroom TVs have lower grade point average than their peers. The reason isn't clear. It may be due to sleep disturbance or deprivation. They may be distracted by TV when doing their homework or they may simply read less than their classmates without bedroom TVs.
Another obvious problem with bedroom TVs is the lack of supervision. Programs are rated to help parents select appropriate shows for their children to watch. Informational, educational and non-violent shows are best. But if children are watching TV alone in their rooms, who is supervising content? V-chips can help by allowing parents to block shows that are outside of their child's age range or programs rated as having adult language or violence. By watching programs with their children parents can supervise content, and also use TV as a jumping off point to discuss that content and relate it to their family's individual values.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV for infants and toddlers and no TVs in children's bedrooms. School-aged children and teens should be limited to a maximum of one to two hours a day of screen time, including TV, computers and video games. (The average American child currently watches 3 hours a day of TV. When computers and video games are thrown in, that number tops a whopping 6 ¬½ hours!) Children shouldn't be allowed to eat in front of the TV. Programming should be continually monitored and supervised.
Groucho Marx said, "I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book." Families may want to take a page from that book and consider a no TV week or at least a no TV night once a week. Even more gradual cutting back is worthwhile. Each family member can suggest one fun activity to replace one TV show a week. The point is every little bit helps and soon you and your family can be well on your way to healthier more engaged lives.