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Zoning Out

What is it about television that will keep an otherwise active, inquisitive child immobile for hours on end? When the TV clicks on, our children become oblivious to their surroundings, completely focused on whatever they are watching.

Clearly our family is not alone in this phenomenon. Our children’s addiction to television leaves us baffled and frustrated... that is, until we need the boob tube to keep them busy while we finish a chore or make a phone call.

While it’s tempting to view television as a cheap, in-home babysitter, studies show that excessive TV watching for children often comes with a price. The U.S. Department of Education reports that children in this country watch an average of three to five hours of TV per day, while the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommended amount is closer to one to two hours. Further, experts suggest children under 2 years old not watch TV at all.

Excessive TV watching by school-age children interferes with active two-way communication and book reading—two things that foster language skills. A friend pointed out that 20 years ago, people would sit and talk after dinner. They developed the art of conversation, something young people experience less these days, in part because of their dependency on TV, computers, cell phones, iPods and other electronic devices.

The Web site www.kidshealth.org suggests several practical ways to limit children’s TV watching. First, parents should know how much TV their children watch daily. That includes background TV. Second, parents should set limits on how much television children are allowed to watch. Have children plan to watch favorite programs instead of just flicking through the channels. In addition, parents can limit before or after school TV. Some stalwarts even ban TV on schooldays.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends removing televisions from children’s bedrooms and family eating areas. Some studies show a connection between excessive television viewing and childhood obesity. Watching TV while eating may encourage children to eat more than they need or want. And children with TVs in their bedrooms tend to watch more shows and have fewer rules regarding TV than children without sets in their rooms.

Parents should give kids other interesting things to do when they decide to limit TV time. The Web site www.televisionturnoff.org offers a list of alternatives to screen time. (The site’s sponsor, the non-profit TV-Turnoff Network, advocates TV-Turnoff Week, April 23 through 29.)

One of the things our children enjoy most is playing a game with a parent or an older sibling. They will turn off the TV without complaint at the offer of a game of Sorry! or Uno with Mom or Dad.

In fact, in our home, each Sunday we have declared a no-TV day. Instead of sitting in front of the TV, we worship together, play games, bake cookies, take a drive, call relatives who live far away or visit friends close by. When we first instituted our no-TV-on-Sunday rule, we met a lot of resistance, but now the kids accept it. We sometimes have trouble coming up with interesting activities, but at the end of the day, memories of our children playing together, reading with one another or drawing cards for grandparents are very rewarding.

As parents, part of our job is to protect our children from harmful influences such as drugs or alcohol. While television in moderation can inform and relax us, in excess it can hurt our children. It’s never going to be easy to say “no” to your children, but sometimes saying “no TV” can lead to happier, healthier families.                            

Alan and Kelly Taylor live in Liverpool with their five children. Kelly holds a master’s degree in family studies; Alan is an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s department of child and family studies.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York