Screen Time

Making the Most of Your Family's Media Exposure

By Micki Bare

The colors are vibrant and clear, attracting our attention and keeping it. The sounds flow endlessly, from candid conversations to background melodies to exciting prop effects. It is all meticulously packaged - an effort to romance us into a hypnotic gaze. We simply cannot resist the screen, and neither can our children. They sit on the floor, happily engaged in another world where furry monsters teach the alphabet and sea creatures get into scrapes, a world where the sun shines and everyone dances and problems are resolved quickly. Our relationship with the screen carries on, through sitcoms, cartoons, movies, video games, and Internet interactions.

As a child, I thought my parents were too strict. They previewed movies before we were allowed to see them, they limited our television exposure, and they were constantly telling us to go outside and get some fresh air. As it turns out, my parents were not strict. They were simply ahead of their time.

I am not sure if my parents could foresee the snowball effect of screens in our future. And they never predicted the dilemmas we would face in respect to social issues or obesity in the new century. Common sense just told them that playing outside with the neighborhood kids was time well spent compared to gazing at the persuasive, glowing box.

Today's screen time exposure issues are much more complex than they were in the seventies, when there were only four channels - one of them a bit fuzzy - and my friends and I begged to watch after-school specials or reruns of The Brady Bunch before heading outside to play until supper. For today's children, with hundreds of channels, thousands of video games, and millions of websites from which to choose, screen exposure has increased. So have our worries about obesity, appropriate content, and proper socialization. According to Dr. Paul T. Klas, M.D., of Family Medicine of Albemarle, children who spend too much time in front of a screen are not doing other things that bring variety and enjoyment to life.

Dr. Klas points out that children are much too sedentary at a time when childhood obesity is an epidemic in our country. Sedentary activities, such as sitting in front of a computer or television, clearly contribute to the growing problem of an overweight America. In addition, media placement of sugary, fatty products in children's programming and games aggravates the issue. Dr. Klas emphasizes to his patients, "Even good screen time is worse than reading, playing, building and being relational."

What can parents do? Intersperse that screen time with other, more active pursuits, and take a break to talk to your children about what they're watching. And encouragingly, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street, has launched a comprehensive program to help combat childhood obesity. If you have a young child, you may have noticed public service announcements in which characters like Elmo and Rosita talk about healthy eating and exercise. The program also includes a line of books, videos, and interactive media aimed at preventing obesity by teaching preschool children to be active and eat well.

Marketing and media placement is a critical issue when considering children and their exposure to television, movies and games. The growth in the number of children who influence decision making when it comes to spending money as well as the rise in children spending money themselves has pushed advertisers into marketing directly to children. Coming from a modest-income family just prior to the age of credit debt, my siblings and I had absolutely no influence on how household dollars were spent unless it was our birthday. Even then, we had to dream within a budget. But times have changed. I've been guilty a time or two of indulging the wants of my children over and above the limits of my net income. Too-good-to-pass-up credit deals make it a little too easy to get the latest gaming system that everyone else already bought the minute it hit the market. And thanks to current marketing strategies aimed directly at my children, they not only ask for what they want, they come prepared with all the details including where to find things on sale.

Commercials are only the tip of the iceberg. Product placement in television shows, movies, and games is a subtle but powerful way to influence product choice: consider the television character who always eats Cocoa Puffs or the Coke machine in the background of a video game. Products have been developed into cartoons, resulting in 30-minute commercials aimed directly at children. Manufacturers and movies routinely combine forces to sell products to children, such as Pirates of the Caribbean cereal or Spongebob Squarepants clothing. I had to conduct a blind taste test in my own kitchen to prove to my children that celebrity endorsements do not necessarily improve product taste or quality. To balance this massive advertising push, watch television and movies with your children, pointing out the product placements. Educate your children about the fact that the manufacturers paid a lot of money for their product to appear on the set. Actors are also well paid to endorse products, speaking from a script written by a marketing department rather than using their own words and personal experience. You may also decide to limit the amount of choice your children have in buying into the advertising hype.

Exposure to sexually suggestive, violent, and socially unacceptable content is another concern. On average, children spend more time watching television than they do attending school. Therefore, the influential impact of screen time exposure can be staggering. By the age of 18, the average American child views 200,000 violent acts on television. Consider all of the aggressive and violent video games to which children are also exposed. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), many violent acts are actually perpetrated by the protagonists, or "good guys" - the heroes children like to emulate. Young children do not easily distinguish the lines between reality and fantasy, making it difficult for them to process violent or "scary" information. Thus, screen exposure can result in children being frightened of their environment. Making television time into family time and choosing video games together can help you limit your children's exposure to these unwelcome elements.

Alcohol use, illicit drug use, smoking, sexual attitudes, and racial and sexual stereotypes are incorporated into some of the screen programming developed for children, as well as adult programming easily accessed by children. Casual acceptance of questionable messages can be internalized as a result of excessive or unrestricted exposure. To keep the suggestive material in check, discuss with your children the moral implications of what they see and use those instances as teachable moments to instill your own family's values. Identify examples of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and explain your views, and the basis for them, to your children.

If your school system, like ours, provides "life education" as part of their health curriculum, use instances of suggestive or adult themes to segue into a family discussion on the birds and the bees. If your children are anything like mine, they will beg you to change the channel when anything with an adult theme hits the screen. Or they'll turn off the television and find an activity that will not prompt their mother to discuss the facts of life.

As parents, we should also pay attention to and research ratings, and then set, explain and enforce limits regarding both content as well as exposure time. Learn how to use monitoring tools such as the V-Chip on your television and Internet programs for parents that restrict children's access to inappropriate websites. Once we get the hang of using parental control media tools, it is important that we remember that they cannot take the place of a parent monitoring children's screen time. My older children, especially, can easily navigate settings on parental controls. That's why it's best to also pay attention to where they are going online, what they are doing, what they are watching, and how they are using the information. It's also good to know, as a parent, how to disconnect the connection - go ahead and unplug the television or interrupt the Internet connection after a designated time.

Socialization issues are also affected by screen time. Watching television, playing on computers, and using handheld gaming devices are activities that isolate children and do not promote social interaction. While there are multi-player games, for the most part, gamers are interacting with the tools and the screen, not the other players. Speech and language and social skill development occur during interaction with peers and adults. Social interaction and contact are extremely critical to an infant's rapidly developing brain, which is why the AAP recommends that children under the age of two are exposed to no screen time at all, and children older than two be limited to one to two hours of quality programming a day. As a parent, you can set time limits - you could literally set a kitchen timer that "dings" when television, computer or video game time is over. Other possibilities include turning off the television during meals and homework, treating television viewing as a privilege that must be earned, and setting up TV-time schedules for the household, similar to schedules for piano lessons and sports practices.

On the other side of the socialization coin, especially when children reach school age, they may clamor to watch the latest shows and play the video games they hear their classmates talking about. Again, balance and communication are vital. Decide which elements of popular culture you find acceptable for your children to be exposed to, and have a running discussion with them. And while it's not advisable to overbook children with a plethora of organized activities, getting them involved with recreational sports teams, community volunteer opportunities, or church activities, or encouraging interest in a musical instrument or singing, are ways to broaden their horizons while also providing socialization. Family activities like camping, attending local sporting events, or simply taking a walk after dinner each day can also build strong relationships.

Exploitation and identity theft are relatively new issues that parents need to address with children who communicate via the Internet. Child predators, hidden under the anonymous mask of the Internet, chat with children every day in chat rooms, on websites designed for children, in chat modes of online games and, through instant message (IM) software. Information posted on websites and in profiles can be accessed by anyone, including thieves and child predators. Just because a child is home, quietly engaged in computer activities, does not mean he is out of harm's way. In the technological world in which we live, analog and digital connections bring the world, with its good and bad, directly into our homes.

To help protect your family from the bad, make sure that the computer is in a high-traffic area of the house where adults can monitor its use. Teach children never to give out or post personal information, such as their name, age, address or phone number. Make them aware that on the Internet, there is no way to know if people are really who they claim to be. Expand the "don't talk to strangers" rule to include the Internet, restricting children to chatting, emailing and IMing only people they know. In addition, teach children that the rules of etiquette and appropriate social interaction you've taught them to use in public also apply to the Internet. Insensitive and derogatory words can be just as harmful when written as when said aloud.

What else can a parent do? Dr. Marketa Leisure, M.D., FAAP, IBCLC, a pediatrician with Crozet Children's Health Center, P.C. and the mother of four, advises parents to take the TV out of their children's rooms. She agrees with the AAP recommendation of limiting screen time for children to two hours or less, adding that parents should choose non-violent content. Dr. Leisure also recommends alternatives, such as providing instruments and books as well as encouraging parents to read, sing and play games with their children. "The promise of limited time to play a video game remains a great incentive for my kids to help with chores at my house," adds Dr. Leisure.

Remember that communication is the key to making your family's screen time productive. Talking with children every day and discussing issues as they arise strengthens the parent's role as a child's most influential teacher. When parents control use and monitor content, they instill their own belief systems while weakening the role of the media in shaping the future of their children.

As parents, we need to realize that our own actions set an example. Parents who sit and watch television or stay on the computer for hours on end have children who do the same. Parents who read, play games, write, garden, and visit museums have children who do the same. There are many screens that have the potential to barrage us with information around the clock. Therefore, applying common sense to the complex issues surrounding children and screen time, it is a good rule of thumb to teach children, as with everything in life, the value of moderation.

Following the example of my parents, my husband and I set limits for the time our three children spend on the computer. We have nights during which the television is not used at all. We research video game ratings and discuss their content before a purchase is made. And we are constantly telling our kids to go outside and get some fresh air.

Micki is a freelance writer raising three media-wise kids with her husband.

Originally published in AlbemarleFamily Living March 2007. For more great stories be sure to visit More Great Reading online or pick up the newest issue of our magazine at a nearby newsstand.

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