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TV's Toll on Young Minds and Bodies


Published: August 3, 2004
(New York Times on the Web: -- )

Television can be a wonderful learning tool. Thirty-odd years ago, "Sesame Street," "The Electric Company" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" helped my sons learn to read, count, socialize and cope with feelings. Nature programs on public television taught them an enormous respect for the world at large and the creatures within it.

Not until the boys were old enough to understand how commercials tried to promote consumption were they allowed to watch sports programs on commercial television. The basic motto of the household was, "When it's light out, you're out" - that is, playing outdoors.

With little TV, they were two lean, strong, athletic children who grew up in a home without junk food, did not pester their parents to buy things they saw advertised, never smoked or drank alcohol and knew more about wildlife than the leader of a trip to Kenya.

Unfortunately, our experience with television is rarely duplicated these days. Sitting passively in front of the tube for hours is taking its toll on the bodies and minds of the nation's children. Studies have documented unhealthy effects on weight, attention span, reading skills and socialization among children who spend hours a day watching television or playing video games.

The average young child in this country watches about four hours of television a day and each year sees tens of thousands of commercials, often for high-fat, high-sugar or high-salt snacks and foods; thousands of episodes of violence; and countless instances of alcohol use and inappropriate sexual activity. By the time American children finish high school, they have spent nearly twice as many hours in front of the television set as in the classroom.

Recently, a mother complained to me that her 9-year-old daughter watches television for eight hours a day and she couldn't get her to stop. "Why not?" I asked. "Because," the woman answered, "the TV is in her bedroom." My next question to this mother was: "Whose fault is that? Who's the boss in your home - you or a 9-year-old?"

But that 9-year-old is hardly alone. Nearly 60 percent of children aged 8 to 16 have a TV in their bedroom. Regardless of income level, most homes these days have more than one television. Half of American households have three or more. In addition to the family or living room, there are often televisions in each bedroom, the kitchen, basement and even the bathroom and garage. With access to television wherever children may be, it is hard for parents to control the amount and content of what they watch.

Although controversy abounds about the precise ill effects of excessive television watching on children's well-being, there are undeniable facts, some documented through long-term studies.

Fact No. 1 is the most obvious: A child glued to the tube is sitting still, using the fewest calories of any activity except sleeping. Such children get less exercise than those who watch less television, and they see many more commercials for unhealthful foods and beverages. They also have more opportunity to consume such foods than do children who are out playing. It is no surprise, then, that the percentage of American children who are seriously overweight has risen to more than 15 percent today, from 5 percent in 1964.

"TV reduction appears to be the most effective measure in reducing weight gain," said Dr. William H. Dietz of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 'Two-Minute Mind'

Television is also a mentally passive activity. When watched in excess, it deprives children of hours that could be spent fostering creativity, self-reliance, learning and social interaction.

Studies have found that children who watch 10 or more hours of TV a week have lower reading scores and perform less well academically than comparable youngsters who spend less time watching television. Long-term studies suggest several reasons.

One study of 2,500 children conducted at Children's Hospital in Seattle and published in April in the journal Pediatrics found that the more TV watched by toddlers aged 1 to 3, the greater their risk of attention problems at age 7. For each hour watched a day, the risk of developing attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder increased by nearly 10 percent. Children with this problem find it hard to concentrate, have difficulty organizing and exhibit impulsive behavior.

Studies of brain function show evidence of direct harm to the brains of young children who watch television for two or more hours a day. Watching television fosters development of brain circuits, or "habits of mind," that result in increased aggressiveness, lower tolerance levels and decreased attention span, in lieu of developing language circuits in the brain's left hemisphere.

"The 'two-minute mind' easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing," noted Dr. Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist, in a commentary published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. She reported that "many parents of children diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder found the difficulty markedly improved after they took away television viewing privileges."

Furthermore, exposure to violence on television has been linked to aggressive behavior in children. Yet in a new study in Pediatrics, nearly three-fourths of 677 parents queried said they thought their children witnessed violence on TV at least once a week.

Other problems associated with excessive television viewing are poor sleep quality and a greater likelihood of taking up smoking. A study two years ago by the Center for Child Health Outcomes in San Diego found that children aged 10 to 15 who watched five or more hours of television a day were six times as likely to start smoking as those who watched less than two hours a day.

Setting Limits

Many of the following suggestions come from the TV-Turnoff Network, a Washington-based organization, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Start by setting limits and household rules. Decide how many hours (one or two at the most) , and when, your child can watch television each day. But rather than saying, "You can't watch TV," try "Let's turn off the television so we can . . ." (read a book, take a bike ride, play with your friend). Once you have set the limit, stick to it.

Don't use the TV as a reward or punishment. That only increases its value in your child's mind.

Do not let your child watch television at meals or while doing homework. If a favorite program is on then, tape it for later viewing.

Avoid using the TV as a baby sitter. If you need the quiet time to get dinner ready, you might schedule your child's viewing time for that hour. For other chores, involve the children as much as possible, say, in helping to fold laundry.

Plan your child's viewing by using a program guide and ratings to select the shows, and turn the TV off when the chosen show is over. Or use children's videos from the local library or a video store. Check the Web site for suggestions.

Whenever possible, watch TV with your children and talk about what you see. Make sure young children know that TV characters are not real. Do not let them watch cartoons, programs or newscasts that depict violence or sexual activity. If a child watches commercial television, explain that commercials are designed to make people want things they may not need. Set a good example by limiting your own TV viewing. Consider setting aside one day a week as a "no TV" day.