Tune Out: Pediatricians Issue New Guidelines for Entertainment Media
Between iPods, computers, handheld games, televisions, video games and the like, we're guessing it's hard to keep track. Children are bombarded by media, and not all of it is good. To help parents make sense of it all, the American Academy of Pediatrics is publishing an updated policy statement on media education, its first update in more than a decade.
If the numbers are any indication, it's about time. When the last statement was issued in 1999, kids spent a bit more than three hours a day watching TV, according to a report to be published in Pediatrics. With all the extra devices around today, the average kid spends more than seven hours a day watching TV and using computers, phones and other electronic devices for entertainment. The only thing they spend more time doing? Sleeping.
By the time the average child has reached the age of 70, he or she will have spent the equivalent of up to 10 years in front of a TV set, the report says.
That's problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is that much of that time is unsupervised, and a whole lot of what's out there is inappropriate -- and sometimes harmful -- for kids.
So what do parents need to know?
For starters, parents should enforce time limits on media use. The AAP recommends that children younger than 2 not watch any television (two-thirds of them watch for an hour and a half, the report says), and kids older than 2 should spend no more than two hours a day on entertainment media, which includes everything from Facebook to television to Super Mario.
That sounds great, but is it realistic? Many sporting events run longer than two hours. Are you really going to turn off the World Series in the fifth inning?
"It's not meant to be like a dietary prescription that you have to observe every single day of your life," Dr. Victor Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico Medical School and a member of the AAP's Council on Communications and Media, tells ParentDish. "It is a recommendation, it is a ballpark estimate. There are days you may not watch any TV and there are days when you may watch five hours."
But capping television time isn't easy. A good start is to get the TV set out of your child's room (more than 70 percent of teenagers have a TV in their bedroom, according to the report). In fact, bedrooms should be free zones, devoid of all electronic media, including Internet access, the AAP advises. That way parents can monitor quantity and quality.
So, you're thinking, what's the big deal about a little extra television? Bigger bodies, for starters. Dozens of studies have shown that kids who spend more time consuming entertainment media are more likely to be obese in adolescence and adulthood, Strasburger tells ParentDish.
Part of the problem is what kids are giving up to spend that much time sitting and staring at a screen. They're missing out on time spent running around, playing sports or hanging out with friends. Even if your child is otherwise active, too much screen time can make them fat, perhaps because they're more likely to snack.
And turn off the TV at dinnertime.
"You actually eat more calories if you eat in front of the TV set," Strasburger says.
Too much media use also has been linked to problems in school, attention issues and sleep and eating disorders, the report warns.
And then there's the content issue. The AAP is particularly concerned about shows that have violent or sexual content, or that glamorize the use of alcohol or tobacco. The effects of this sort of programming are well known: More than 200 studies have shown that "significant exposure" to media violence makes some kids more aggressive, desensitizes them to violence and leads them to believe that the world is meaner and scarier than it really is, the report says.
And violence is everywhere, from the news to video games to movies. Strasburger says "justifiable violence," in which good guys beat up the bad guys, is harmful, as well.
Media is also overly sexualized, the report says, with more than 75 percent of prime time programming containing sexual content, but only 14 percent of that touching on the risks or responsibilities of sex. Add to that all the erectile dysfunction ads and the like (advertising is as serious an issue as programming), and you get a message that sex is little more than a recreational activity. Research is "beginning to show" that this kind of sexual content may contribute to early intercourse among teenagers, the report adds.
Finally, there's the issue of smoking and drinking, in both programming and enticing advertisements. One recent analysis of other studies estimated that 44 percent of smoking in children and young teenagers could be attributed to kids seeing smoking in movies, the report says.
So, what can be done? The AAP says it would like to see a ramp up in media education and research.
"A media-educated person will be able to limit his or her media use, make positive media choices, develop critical thinking and viewing skills, and be less vulnerable to negative effects of media content and advertising," it says in a statement.
The takeaway for parents: Just cutting down the time your children spends in front of a screen "has been shown conclusively to have beneficial health effects," the statement says.
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.