How much TV is too much?
This Sunday marks the biggest TV watching day of the year: Superbowl Sunday. More people will watch the pre-game show, the game itself, and the post-game show (not to mention the ads) than the inauguration! Lots of parents of young children ask me about TV watching and how much is too much. Lots of advice is out there and much of it good and full of common sense.
The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that children under two watch no television and children over the age of two watch no more than 30-60 minutes a day. This may seem extreme, but the children who watch a lot of television are much more likely to be obese, have difficulty concentrating in school, have poor imaginations, and act violently than children who watch much less.
Television watching is one of many things parents can do with their children and some TV is legitimately educational and enjoyable. But like the rest of life, you can have too much of even a good thing and frankly, a lot of what’s on TV isn’t even good! I advise parents to think about what they would be doing with their child if the television wasn’t on to help decide if they are watching appropriately. If you would have been building with Legos, reading together, dancing to music, cooking in the kitchen, playing catch or would otherwise have been actively engaged, and you have chosen to watch a DVD or TV show instead, then your child has lost out. Time one on one with you, engaged in a mutual activity will beat television (educational or not) hands down. But if you have already spent the last hour reading and coloring and playing kitchen with your child and you both need some down time, watching a DVD or television show together that you both enjoy could be a great way to spend a half hour.
Many parents aren’t asking about this sort of television watching but instead wonder about having the TV on in the background over the weekend or in the early evening, and ask if this is detrimental to the child. Most likely the answer is yes. Having the television on all afternoon on the weekend will distract and engage the parent, and even if the child is not interested or watching, he will miss out on time that could have been spent engaged with his parent who is less ‘available’ even when in the same room. In addition, children playing in the same room with the television on in the background had more difficulty sustaining attention to their activity and this may explain the association between TV watching and difficulties concentrating later on. So whether you have ‘Good Morning America’ and ‘The View’ and ‘Martha Stewart’ going all morning or the Michigan-Michigan State game on all afternoon, your child will have missed out.
Of course issues of exposure to the commercials that accompany sports (mostly for beer, cars, and PG-13 or R rated movie trailers) or the sexual content of many talk shows and soap operas also weigh in on the decision to have the TV on in the background. The morning and evening news programs are riddled with disasters and crime and would be distressing to many children.
Does this mean that you should just keep your TV off all the time? Not necessarily, but it does mean that using your DVR, Tivo or VCR to record the shows you want to watch is a better choice. Does this mean you should never watch a sports game with your children? Not necessarily, but it probably shouldn’t be an all afternoon or evening affair. So if you are going to watch the Superbowl, skip the pregame show and turn it off during half time. Talk about the game with your child and mute the commercials. Enjoy it, but do it with your children in mind.
Watch TV with your kids in moderation, play outside even when its cold, and run all winter long and each day will be your best!
Molly O’Shea, MD Birmingham Pediatrics + Wellness Center