By Michelle Lurie, Psy.D., ABPdN.
How often do you turn to your TV to keep your child occupied for a few minutes while you attempt to finish a task? How often does this “few minutes” increase to an hour or more? According to the American Psychiatric Association, American children watch an average of 28 hours of television a week. Children, ages 8 to 18, spend more time (44.5 hours per week- 61/2 hours daily) in front of computer, television, and game screens than any other activity in their lives except sleeping (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). More than half of children aged 2 to 18 have a TV in their bedrooms, and the average 1-year-old watches six hours of TV per week, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that they watch none. Small children are fascinated by the short, fast-moving bits of imagery on TV, but they lack the cognitive skills to understand them. They cannot make connections, and tend to focus on the more intense scenes, such as violent moments, rather than story components.
The effect of viewing violent content is one of the concerns of exposing small children to TV. By the time a child is eighteen years old, he or she will witness on television (with average viewing time) 200,000 acts of violence including 40,000 murders. While most adults realize that media violence is fabricated, children are more vulnerable. Preschoolers cannot distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy. Developmentally, their magical thinking makes them believe that what they see on TV is real. Some studies point to a causal link between media violence and aggressive behaviors in children, and show that children as young as 14 months imitate the violent behavior they see on TV. When faced with a stressful situation, these children are more likely to respond in an aggressive manner than children who are not exposed to media violence. In addition, six prominent medical groups* warn of these other effects of media violence on children:
- Children may become less sensitive to violence and those who suffer from violence.
- Children may view the world as violent and mean, becoming more fearful of being a victim of violence.
- Children will desire to see more violence in entertainment and real life.
- Children will view violence as an acceptable way to settle conflicts.
It is not only the violent content of some TV programs that is of concern. Very recent research has indicated that early television exposure is also associated with significant attentional problems at a later age. This research found that that the number of hours of television viewed per day at both ages 1 and 3 was linked to attention deficits at age 7. This may result from the fact that TV encourages short attention spans with its use of snappy attention-getting devices. Despite these concerns, researchers have indicated that children can benefit from viewing educational programming, especially children who live in low-income families who may not have other educational resources available in their homes.
What can you as a parent do to reduce the negative effects of TV viewing? Of course limiting the hours of TV viewing to an hour a day for preschool children is essential. Rather encourage your children to do a puzzle, draw a picture, or play outside. However, the most critical thing you can do is to watch TV with your children and discuss what they see. If your children see a violent event on TV, ask them why the character may have acted in this manner, how else the character could have acted, and what were the consequences of the violent act. Help children interpret what they see on TV, discuss their reactions, and foster critical thinking skills. Finally, turn off the TV during conversations and meal time. No matter how exciting the program, what children really thrive on is the love, values, and interaction provided by their parents!