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No Matter What, TV Is Bigger Than Ever With Kids


TVs are getting bigger, no doubt about it. 26 inches was big when I was young, but now a 40-inch screen barely cuts it. But wait a minute... this article isn’t about how big your TV is... it’s about how big TV is becoming.


It’s rather ironic. These new plasma-busters (or LCD/LED combos for you leading edge people) can display digital TV, DVDs, your PVR, Internet, memory cards, photos from the PC in your office and Flikr, the webcam in your mother’s living room on the other side of the country -- but when it comes to kids -- they just want good ‘ol fashioned TV... and lots of it.


A report from The Nielsen Company, released yesterday (October 26, 2009) tells us TV viewing among kids is at an eight-year high. I must admit, I was surprised -- I figured that with all the other distractions in a child’s life, the TV might be seen as passé. Instead, the opposite is true.


The report shows that every week, an average child under 11 is spending more than one full day in front of the television. That’s more than one full day -- 28 hours total for the 6 to 11-year-old bunch and a whopping 32 hours for kids between 2 and 5 years of age.


These staggering numbers do include some time playing video games (almost 2 1/2 hours per week for the older group, and a little better than an hour per week for younger kids) along with between about 5 and 7 hours per week watching pre-recorded TV from a PVR or VCR and movies and TV material on DVD. But the vast majority of the television our children are watching is live material straight off the antenna or cable.


The other interesting discovery is children also watch more commercials, especially those in the younger group, who will continue to consume the ads even when using playback devices like a PVR.


The Nielsen report does it’s best to put a positive spin on all this tube time. After analyzing the amazingly high use of PVRs and DVD players by children as young as 2, the report comments, “Their considerable use of these devices at a young age points to them being able to adopt new devices comfortably as they grow up.”


Nielsen’s senior vice president of insights, analysis and policy, Patricia McDonough, commented in today’s Los Angeles Times that kids aren’t substituting TV time with other media. “They're not giving up any media -- they're just picking up more,” says McDonough.


McDonough attributes the increase in television viewing by young children in part to the increased supply of programs targeting this age group. Videos they can watch repeatedly are also very popular, she says.


Of course, the results are going to be alarming to many, especially the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization that over a decade ago pleaded with parents to limit TV time to 2 hours a day -- that would equal 14 hours a week, meaning these new averages are more than 100% above the recommendation.


A spokesman for AAP, Dr. Vic Strasburger, didn’t mince his words at all in the same LA Times article: “I think parents are clueless about how much media their kids are using and what they're watching. The biggest misconception is that it's harmless entertainment.”


Strasburger stresses that even the best children’s entertainment needs to be used in careful moderation. “There are some extraordinarily good media for kids," he said. "But even the best -- 'Sesame Street' for 5-year-olds -- kids shouldn't be watching five hours a day. They should be outside playing. They should be having books read to them."


Can we blame it on the recession, and more parents spending greater time at work? Or are we too trusting of television -- even programs that appear to be educational and innocent?


Previous studies have shown that watching television, any type of television, can have effects on a child’s physical and mental state. If monitored carefully, some of these effects can be positive. But, if used carte blanche as a time filling activity, parents run the risks of increased obesity, behavior problems, school performance concerns and other issues.


What can parents do? Twenty years ago I began offering tips to parents to control TV, and it appears that for all the advances in technology, nothing has been done to replace some tried and true methods:


n      Agree on allotted TV amounts and set a timer that beeps loudly when the time is over. Kids often accept a mechanical/electronic reminder better than mom or dad nagging them to turn it off.


n      Even two hours is a long time for a young child. Break up TV time into smaller segments with other activities in between.


n      Preselect programs that meet your family’s standards. If you have a PVR, VCR or recordable DVD, program these TV shows so kids can watch good shows on their schedule. This will prevent pressure to watch possibly objectionable programs now and do other things (like homework and exercise) later.


n      Frequently watch with your children, and ask them questions about what they see and hear.


Rod Gustafson


Besides writing this column for the Parents Television Council, Rod Gustafson authors Parent Previews® - a newspaper and Internet column (published in association with movies.com) that reviews movies from a parent's perspective. He's also the film critic for a major Canadian TV station, various radio stations and serves on the executive of the Alberta Association for Media Awareness. Finally, his most important role is being the father to four wonderful children and husband to his beautiful wife (and co-worker) Donna.

Parenting and the Media by Rod Gustafson

The Parents Television Council - www.parentstv.org

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