Turn off the TV, Mom and Dad!

My two-year-old has recently become more interested in the television and tablet. In some ways it has been a blessing. I can now take a shower by myself while he plays nearby or put in a DVD while making dinner.  But, at the same time I find I have to be really careful to track his screen time. It is amazing how fast 15 minutes here and there and adds up throughout the day. Luckily, my son is far more interested in playing outside and “helping” me cook than he is in watching TV.

A study, in Pediatrics in 2012, found that babies and young children watch 80 minutes of TVprogramming per day, but are exposed to a whopping 232 minutes of additional background TV daily. That adds up to over 5 hours of TV exposure daily! Background exposure refers to the time when the television is on but the child is engaged in other activities. This could be when parents are watching adult programming or when child or adult programming is on throughout the day as “background noise”.

This past July, Pediatrics published another study looking at the relationship between parental viewing habits and their child’s viewing habits.  This study found that the amount of TV watched by parents strongly correlated with increased child viewing time. Not only does parental TV viewing contribute to increased background TV exposure, but it is also leads to increased active TV viewing. Every hour of TV watched by parents leads to kids watching on average an additional 23 minutes of TV per day. This could be related to co-viewing, having multiple TVs on in the home, or simply a learned behavior from observing parents watching TV.

We know that increased TV viewing is associated with poor school performance, poor sleep, behavior problems, and obesity. What can we, as parents, do to reign in our kid’s screen time?

-Turn off the TV! It sounds obvious, but is challenging for many families. If you are accustomed to having the TV on as background noise, try an alternative such as listening to the radio, a cd, or book on tape.  Remember that your kids are learning their viewing habits from you.  DVRs, Netflix, and online viewing make it easier than ever to catch up on missed programming. You can even borrow DVDs from your local library! Think outside the box and you may find that you can still watch your favorite shows after the kids go to bed.

-Keep TVs out of the bedroom – It is estimated that 1/3 of three year olds have a TV in their bedroom. Watching TV before bed leads to poor sleep quality and decreased attention.  It also can be hard for parents to monitor the content and time spent watching TV.

-Remember that it’s not just the TV. Phones, tablets, computers, video games all count as screen time.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends minimal screen time for children under two and limiting older children to two hour per day.  Set house rules for TV viewing and screen time. It will be easier to enforce screen time limits if you have consistent rules and expectations.   You can use a reward system to dole out screen time or set a timer to indicate when the TV needs to be shut off. Many of the newer tablets allow parents to set a time limit for play and the device will automatically shut off when the time is up.  It can also be helpful to put electronic devices (phones and tablets in particular) to “bed” at night.

-It’s ok for kids to be bored- Allow your kids time to be creative and make their own fun. This is when kids learn to make forts, put on a play, or simply read quietly.   If all else fails give them a list of chores to do. Nothing cures boredom faster than being asked to do chores!

Sarah Lenhardt, MD About Sarah Lenhardt, MD

Sarah J. Lenhardt is an Instructor in Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine. She cares for children at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Missouri Baptist Medical Center, and at Progress West Healthcare. She attended the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN and Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Lenhardt completed a residency in Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and worked as a general pediatrician in Minnesota before joining the faculty at Washington University. She is a board Certified pediatrician and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Her special interests include preventative care, integrative medicine, and breastfeeding. Dr. Lenhardt enjoys spending her free time with her husband and 1 year old son.

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