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Some parents just saying no to 'screen time'

Published on: January 01, 2005

How much TV is too much for your age 6-12 child? What shouldn't your child be watching? How can you help him or her become more media literate and understand the persuasive power of ads on TV? And why are some families tossing TV out of their elementary school kids' lives all together?

Katie Heintz-Knowles, PhD, is a children's media researcher and consultant based in Maine and former UW School of Communication professor. She says the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting to no more than one to two hours a day the amount of "screen time" elementary-age children spend watching TV or movies and playing on the computer or with video games.

She acknowledges "this can be difficult for many families when screens are the primary source of entertainment and education. I always recommend to parents to be reasonable and work on varying their children's activities, but not to beat themselves up if they go over the two-hours-per-day limit."

According to Heintz-Knowles, there are a "host of potential problems with too much screen time and use of inappropriate content." She advises that "parents should take their cues from their children about how much is too much and about what types of content are not appropriate. Some types of content may be appropriate for some children but not work for others. If children are having trouble sleeping, if they are using language you consider inappropriate, etc. then you need to figure out if media are contributing to those problems."

In addition, "TV news can be very disturbing for young children who are not able to think in terms of 'possibility' or 'probability' and who take all things on TV at face value," she says. "Pictures of children in war-torn countries are very frightening when a child believes that can also happen in his or her neighborhood."

Advertising can also be problematic, Heintz-Knowles says. "Children before the age of 8 have a hard time distinguishing between fantasy and reality and in evaluating the motives of characters or message senders. To fully appreciate a persuasive message, one has to be able to evaluate the motives of the sender. Since this is a skill that comes along with the ability for higher levels of abstract thinking, many young children believe advertisements to be truthful when they are exaggerated."

Lynn Ziegler, a Suquamish, Wash.-based mother of three, is a long-time advocate for quality children's television and sits on the board of ACME, the Action Coalition for Media Education. She wants parents and children to look for "good stuff on TV," and she is working on a book titled, Spongeheadz: U & MEdia.

To increase children's media literacy, Ziegler says, parents should watch TV with their kids and coach them to ask critical questions regarding programs and advertising, including "who sent this message" and "what are they not showing?" Ziegler says that quality children's television programming can have a positive impact on children, exposing them to a more diverse community than their own.

Susan Linn, EdD, is an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Associate Director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center. She is skeptical about the value of television as an educational medium beyond the diversity celebrated in programs like Sesame Street. She advocates setting limits on TV viewing and encouraging children to substitute watching TV with creative play, time in nature and reading.

There is no more commercial-free TV for kids, she points out, with even public television shows for children now "sponsored" by advertisers including McDonald's. Parents, says Linn, should think about their own family's values then examine the values being displayed in the advertising aimed at their children.

Some Northwest families have removed TV altogether from their young child's life. Waldorf schools, such as Three Cedars in Bellevue, advocate eliminating all screen time for young children. Waldorf teachers believe that electronic media seriously hamper the development of the child's imagination, which is central to the healthy development of the individual.

Another TV opponent is Nancy Blakey, a Bainbridge Island mother of four and author of the celebrated Mudpies Activity books. Her books are full of ways to help kids entertain themselves without TV, including "art" and "inventor" boxes filled with things kids will want to play with on a rainy day.

Blakey came to the realization years ago that "TV was a time stealer" and felt her children would have a better childhood without it. Once she removed TV from their lives, she says her kids had "doodle and hum" time to integrate what they were learning and each naturally became a more creative problem solver.

She says that parents who want their children to succeed in school and have successful careers should think about TV's impact of turning kids from "doers" into "watchers." For her, proof of the value of replacing TV with more play is the gratitude of her four children, now young adults, who have all thanked her for their TV-free childhood.

Kathleen F. Miller is a Sammamish-based freelance writer and mother of two.

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