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THE TELEVISION TRAP WHAT SHOULD CHILDREN WATCH, AND HOW LONG SHOULD THEY BE WATCHING IT?

"Don't sit too close to the TV. You'll get radiation."
That was the big TV scare when most of today's parents were kids -- the unknown impact of this strange new technology, color TV.

No one worried about what programs we were watching. After all, the scariest thing we could come across while changing the (four) channels was "The Twilight Zone," or even worse, "The Lawrence Welk Show."

But there is no doubt that today our kids' television habits -- how much they watch, how they watch and what they watch -- can have serious ramifications.

First the good news. With the advent of the 300-channel universe, we have more and better alternatives for our children. There are wonderful, entertaining educational shows available for children -- and scores of viewing guides to help parents find them.

But in spite of this, the number of shows that are inappropriate for kids also has increased tremendously. For example, gone are the days when parents could feel relieved if their kids were watching cartoons. The success of "Beavis and Butt-head" and "The Simpsons" has spawned an influx of animated shows geared toward adolescents and adults.

Family viewing

How children watch television can be just as critical as what they watch.

For example, do your children watch television alone? Though parents may find it convenient for older children to have their own TV set, most experts advise against it. It creates a pattern for pre-teens to head into their rooms to channel-surf and watch what they want without parental involvement, isolating the teen from the family. Watching as a family generates discussion and feedback.

Though her family owned Lucki-Urban furniture store for 50 years, Patricia Pitts of Kenmore stuck to the one-television-in-the-household rule.

"We were like the shoemaker's family that had no shoes," she explains. "We had a store full of television sets but we chose to have only one in our home." There were times when she doubted the one-set wisdom, especially when sons Matthew and John experienced a boyhood infatuation with the World Wrestling Federation. "I'd watch the WWF with them -- and it was like fingernails scratching the blackboard." But she survived, and her sons' interest in sports and hobbies left less time for TV as they grew older.

Creating the atmosphere for family viewing is critical. Disney hopes to capitalize on nostalgia by bringing back "Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights at 7 p.m. But don't be a slave to the broadcast schedule. Pre-recorded videos offer the benefit of no surprises (after the first viewing) and no commercials, and they can be turned off when it starts to get late.

Setting boundaries

American children see 20 to 25 hours of television per week, leaving little room for their studies or much else. And the physical result is also frightening -- a generation of junior couch potatoes whose biggest exertion is switching channels with the remote control.

Liz Mailey, school psychologist for Starpoint Central Schools, says the biggest drawback with watching a lot of television is that it doesn't cultivate any skills in children.

"It doesn't help them develop conversation skills or interactive behaviors," she says. And contrary to popular belief, TV doesn't help lengthen kids' attention spans.

"Parents are often amazed when they are told that their child has a short attention span in class. They'll say, 'But he can watch TV for hours at a time!' " Ms. Mailey explains. "They
don't realize that even the best teacher or book can't possibly be as stimulating to a child as television -- with its loud noises, bright colors and images changing every two or three seconds."

No news is good news

WIVB-TV news anchor Jacquie Walker and her husband, Michael, closely monitor the television viewing of their two sons, ages 7 and 10. The boys are permitted to watch a half-hour of television on weekdays, their favorite Saturday morning cartoons and Nickelodeon's Snick programming on Saturday nights.

Because of the nature of her work, Walker's family has news and sports programming on in their home quite often. But she is "ready to pounce on the remote" if she sees something inappropriate for her children.

Walker is concerned when, during public appearances, school-age children tell her they watch her on the news every night.

"I always warn parents that the news is not written for children," she says.

And as a parent, she is constantly aware of the images and language that air on her 5 p.m. newscast, though she has little control over what is presented.

There's no doubt that television is a powerful medium. Psychologists contend that a single program -- even a single television image -- can adversely affect even the most well-adjusted child. Children who witness real-life acts of violence or tragedy are routinely offered counseling. But when a child innocently channel-surfs and comes across a horrifying crime scene on the news, or a horror movie or a documentary of the Holocaust or crime scenes, the results also can be traumatic.

Making conscious choices

When children make conscious viewing choices, instead of watching whatever and wherever they choose, parents get an inkling of what shows mean the most to their children and why. Children of all ages want, and need, both structure and choice.

One Buffalo mother and her daughters agreed on one hour of TV per day after school. They made a list of acceptable shows and taped it to the side of the TV cabinet. If the girls wanted to watch something on a school night, the parents would tape it and see if it was appropriate. If it was suitable, the kids could watch it -- on the weekend.

After a few weeks of taping programs, the parents noticed that the tapes were going unwatched. It seemed that when the kids had the choice of doing homework or watching their favorite shows on a school night, they opted for TV. But when they had to choose between TV and their weekend activities, the kids almost always chose something other than TV.

Some parenting experts, such as columnist and psychologist John Rosemond, recommend that kids watch no TV at all on school days.

Rosemond says total TV time should be limited to five hours per week of carefully selected programs.

"If you want your child to be average, let him watch a lot of television," he says.

Because the terrain is more complicated, parents do need to be firm in setting boundaries for their kids, and they also need to set a good example -- by being intelligent, active viewers and by choosing to turn off the TV more often.

Television has become an ever-present, virtual member of many households, a kind of visual Muzak. But parents often discount its impact: "Oh, sure -- we have the TV on all the time, for the news or 'Melrose Place' or 'The X-Files,' but our kids aren't watching it."

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