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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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.