"It's definitely wise to limit your child's television viewing," said Dr. Peter Nieman, a Calgary pediatrician and lead author of a recent CPS statement on children and the media. "Over the age of two, kids should watch no more than two hours of television per dayanything more than that takes away time from reading, playing with friends, getting exercise, or other activities that promote physical, mental and social skills." Under two years of age, a child shouldn't watch more than one-half to one hour daily, he said.
Television isn't all bad, Dr. Nieman emphasizes. Educational programs like Sesame Street teach simple math and the alphabet to preschoolers, and The Magic Schoolbus introduces older kids to science, discussing everything from how bees make honey to how the body digests food. Even so, Canadian and U.S. pediatricians have both recently warned that unlimited television viewing poses health risks to children:
Nutrition Sugary breakfast cereals, snacks and fast-foods are among the most heavily advertised foods on television. "Kids are so susceptible to advertising," Dr. Nieman said, and children are unlikely to appreciate the health consequences of poor nutrition. Television can also contribute to eating disorders in girls if they try to emulate the thin women portrayed on TV.
Alcohol and tobacco Alcohol and cigarette smoking are often glamorized on TV. But the consequences of irresponsible drinkingincluding motor vehicle crashes, disability and deathare not accurately depicted. A 1998 study from Stanford University found that 14-year-olds who watched the most TV and music videos were more likely to start drinking in the next 18 months.
Obesity "There's no doubt about the connection between obesity and television watching," said Dr. Nieman. However, the cause-and-effect isn't totally clearwatching TV may displace physical activity and lead to weight gain, or it may be that overweight kids watch more TV in the first place.
Sleep Many families watch TV at or around bedtime, and some children routinely fall asleep in front of the TV according to a 1999 U.S. study of 495 children aged four to 10 years. In this study, researchers found that children who watched the most TV had a harder time getting to sleep and staying asleep, perhaps because they were stimulated too much before bedtime, researchers speculated. Or perhaps the children who watched the most television got less exercise during the day, and slept less soundly as a result.
Learning and academic performance Television may harm academic performance, especially reading, when it takes significant amounts of time away from reading and schoolwork.
Violent behavior The average child sees at least 1,000 violent acts on television annually, including many depictions of murder and rape. Studies are "highly suggestive" that television violence leads to real-life aggressive behavior, said Dr. Nieman, especially in boys.
Even more worrisome are violent video games, said Dr. Nieman, who discourages any exposure to these games in children 12 and under. Research is "quite solid" that these games promote aggressive behavior, he said.
Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, a staff psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, agreed that "in some ways, video games are more troubling than TV because they're more interactive and there's a kind of role modeling going on when you zap and shoot.... I'm not saying video games and television are the only factor in aggressive behavior, but can we really afford to desensitize kids with a steady diet of violence?"
Sexuality Soap operas, a popular viewing choice among teenagers, depict extramarital sex eight times more often than sex between spouses, while sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy are rarely mentioned.
Reasonable limits The CPS advises parents to avoid using television as an electronic babysitter and also refrain from putting a television set in a child's bedroom. Turn off the television during meals, during study time, and when visitors arrive; make a rule that homework and chores must be finished before your child can watch television; and be aware that as a parent, you set an example for television viewing. (The full CPS report is available on the Internet at www.cps.ca).
Some parents feel it's best to do away with television altogether. But Dr. Nieman says this may not help children learn to become wise media consumers. "There's no opportunity for them to learn when to switch the TV off," he said. "And when they're away from home, they may watch excessive amounts of TV."
He encourages parents to watch TV with their kids and talk about the programs, because without parental input, television may teach and influence by default. Let older children choose the programs they will watch each week, within their two-hour daily TV budget.
Internet use According to Statistics Canada, 90 percent of teenagers go online regularly, and there's evidence that surfing the Web is replacing television watching as a leisure activity.
"Let's start by facing the fact that that's where kids are going for information," said Dr. Lefebvre, author of Taking Your Kids Online (1999, McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited). Parents can steer kids to useful sites, (for example, www.siecus.org discusses sexual values for teens).
Whatever the child's age, parents play a crucial role, even if they're not computer-literate, Dr. Lefebvre said. "The idea is to explore the Internet with your child. In that way, your values will be imparted."
She suggests elementary school-aged children spend no more than one hour a day, at most, on the Internet. High school students may need to spend more time online for school projects. But "if you find your teen is awake until 3 a.m. because he or she is on the Internet, it's proper for you as a parent to step in and put some boundaries around that activity, to ensure your child's life retains balance."