Television: Ban the box?


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When given alternative activities, preschool children actually began watching significantly less TV.

In this 2000 study, average scores on a standardized science test were highest among 8th graders who watched an hour or less of television per day. Graph: National Center for Education Statistics.

Child focuses on his coloring book.
Substituting the remote for a crayon will pay off for this child, says the American Academy of Pediatrics.Photo: Michigan Department of Education.



Toddlers gaze up at television.Copyright S.V. Medaris With the stupor-bowl come and gone, we feel free to ask: Should preschool kids stare at the tube for an average of three hours a day? (We'll do the math: If a kid sleeps 10 hours a day, they are spending 21 percent of their waking time before the tube).

Is TV such a good "electronic babysitter"?

No, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, source of the three-hours-a-day figure. The academy recommends that children watch no more than one to two hours of "quality programming," whether on TV or video, each day.

Watch what they watch, researchers warn. Studies show that children who view violent programming are prone to violent behavior. ©S.V. Medaris

Kids, the Academy says, need physical activity and personal interaction, not a diet of glaring electronic images, especially when they are lewd, violent, or inane.

In the first study of its kind, researchers have proven that they can reduce television usage among preschoolers. Barbara Dennison, a pediatrician with Bassett Healthcare, of Cooperstown, NY, tested a two-year program to replace tube-gazing with healthier activities, like reading with parents, eating around the dinner table, or just playing ball.

Children reading by window. copyright S.V. MedarisWhy mess with TV? Because it's so harmful to young kids, Dennison contends, especially in terms of violence. "Children who view violent actions on TV are more violent in play, in both words and actions," she argues. Although the connection between violence (on TV and in video games) and violent action is controversial, many people believe that watching killings and car wrecks on television might numb children to violence in their lives.

Pleading for reading
During a two-year study of 102 children at day-care centers and preschools in upstate New York, Dennison and colleagues tested a strategy to replace TV watching with healthier activities. The children were divided into two groups: The control group received a safety program, while the test group got the TV-replacement message.

To promote reading, the researchers sent "age-appropriate books" home with children, together with information explaining why reading would build stronger brains. "Studies show that children who are read to more have better vocabulary and do better in school," Dennison points out. To encourage their parents, the children made blue ribbons for the person who did the best job of reading to them at home.

Graph shows higher scores among those who watch less tv.

I'll take the works
When measured in terms of hours watched, the program worked, Dennison says. While weekly TV watching increased by 1.6 hours among the control group, it fell 3.1 hours -- almost a half-hour a day among the group that got the anti-tube message.

Graph shows less tv viewing in experimental group.
In Barbara Dennison's two-year study, children given alternatives to the tube later watched less of it. The control group remained glued to the screen.
Data: See "An Intervention..." in the bibliography

The anecdotal response was also positive, Dennison says. "A lot of people felt that because they weren't watching so much TV, they had more time for family. They also were doing more active things, so it was easier to get the children to go to bed at night. They weren't begging for TV, and because they were more active, they were more tired and slept better."

Young children concentrate on lego tower.The researchers did not gather information on behavior, and thus cannot say whether the program had an effect on violence.

Giving children alternatives to television is key. More time at play means less time in front of a tube. © Michael Cain

A second anti-tube strategy was to promote family meals. What would gobbling have to do with gazing at TV? It turns out that families that eat in front of the tube eat worse food, and more of it, and have less personal interaction, Dennison says. "Studies show that an increasing number of children and families are eating in front of the TV, instead of sitting around and talking. And studies show that meals eaten in front of the TV have less milk, less fruits, more pizza, and more soda. ... They are often just eating fast food without noticing what they are eating."

While chasing whole pizzas with two-liter sodas sounds like a balanced diet to us, pediatricians say inhaling endless helpings of greasy, sugary stuff while anchored to a couch is a sure-fire recipe for obesity, a growing plague among young (and other) Americans.

A toddler boy inspects a flower.Excess time on the couch can mean excess pounds. Encouraging kids to spend time outdoors may help reverse trends in childhood obesity.
© S.V. Medaris

But in terms of obesity, changing TV habits did not make much difference. "The surprising thing is that both groups of children gained more weight than expected," Dennison told us. Although children in the control group became fatter than children in the treated group, the difference was not statistically significant.

Still, just reducing gross "consumption" of television could be a good thing, if the change is long-lasting. Following kids for a longer period is the next step in the research, says Dennison.

And who knows: If kids watch less TV, might their parents make the same change?

-- David Tenenbaum

An Intervention to Reduce Television Viewing by Preschool Children, Barbara A. Dennison, et al, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004;158:170-176.


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