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TV nation: Viewing time hits new heights

Published on: January 28, 2011

TV nationThree-year-old Maggie is in the middle of a TV-watching marathon. Though her mom has careful rules about what Maggie can watch, she watches a lot — nearly four hours every day.

Kevin, an 8-year-old, watches TV in his room while getting ready for school, after school to “unwind,” and again after his homework is done.

And although 14-year-old Grace has the TV on a lot, she’s not really watching: Her focus is on her laptop, tabbing between an English paper that’s due the next day, her Facebook wall and her instant-messaging program. She sleeps with her cell phone under her pillow.

If none of this happens at your house, congratulations! You’re bucking a trend that’s shattering records for television viewing among children. Seems that while parents were busy worrying about the scary new worlds of the Internet and social media, that innocuous-seeming box — the one we parents grew up with — was creeping up behind us. Experts now say that TV use among children of all ages is at an all-time high.

Just how bad is the problem? Last fall, a local researcher turned up shocking news about preschoolers: Most are watching way more TV than experts say is good for them. The picture has gotten grim for older kids, too; a huge national study of children between the ages of 8 and 18 found a staggering jump in media consumption. American tweens and teens now watch nearly four and a half hours of television a day. Add in those iPods, DVRs and computers, and the number jumps to more than seven and a half hours each day. That’s almost like a full-time job — except that they’re doing it seven days a week.

But putting the brakes on this troubling tube trend is getting harder than ever, according to Dimitri Christakis, Ph.D., director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the author of The Elephant in Your Living Room: Making Television Work for Your Kids. “Parents have a much more limited ability to even control what their children watch.”

The culprit? Tote-along technology that puts TV into kids’ pockets. DVRs that allow kids to never, ever miss “their show.” And Hulu and other websites that allow on-demand viewing. “We’ve said for years that TV shouldn’t be in the bedroom,” says Christakis, “but it’s harder to keep computers out of the bedrooms . . . and it’s virtually impossible to keep phones out of [kids’] bedrooms. I think that the challenge for parents limiting screen time has become greater than it’s ever been.”

But limit, we should, experts say, because — whether it’s slack-jawed staring or masterful media multitasking — TV watching is taking a toll on our kids’ mental and physical health.

Tot zombies
Parents of preschoolers know that there’s a world of television programming now aimed specifically at kids ages 3–5. The days of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood are long behind us; now, entire cable networks are dedicated to entertaining — and yes, even educating — the preschool set, with a ubiquitous stream of talking dogs and vegetables, dinosaurs and backyard aliens.

With all this to choose from, it seems parents are getting permissive with screen time; a recent study by pediatric researcher Dr. Pooja Tandon of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that nearly 70 percent of local preschoolers were watching twice the recommended daily dose of TV. (The American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] recommends no more than two hours of combined screen time a day for this age group.) “Screens are everywhere,” says Tandon. “Whether children are at home or in home-based childcare settings, preschoolers are getting much higher exposure to TV than was previously thought.”

Why is this bad? Studies have shown that as preschool screen time increases beyond two hours per day, so increase the risks for speech delays, aggressive behaviors, obesity and learning delays, Tandon says,  and these findings are what have led to the AAP’s recommendation. So why are parents tolerating so much tube time? “There is a sort of comfort level with [TV],” says Tandon. “Parents grew up with it. They think of it as potentially beneficial.”

Seattle mom Sarah Weber can relate; she grew up watching tons of TV. “I could probably still recount to you each day’s television schedule” from her childhood years, she says. That’s one reason why Weber’s own kids — a daughter who is almost 2 and a son who’s 4 and a half — watch very little TV, perhaps a half-hour a day. “I get a lot of people asking, ‘How do you make dinner at night?’” she says. “We just manage.”

“My family just had the TV on all the time,” says Burien mom Kelsey Swift, but her reaction is different: “Nobody paid attention to what we watched. . . . I feel like I turned out pretty good!” Swift doesn’t set formal limits on her 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s viewing. “She has a very busy social life and sometimes she just needs to veg out in front of the TV,” Swift says. “Some of my mom friends feel really guilty about letting their kids watch TV. I know how busy they are with their kids and how much work they put into keeping them happy. Sometimes everyone needs a break.”

If you’re going for that break, Tandon says, it’s important to remember that not all shows are created equal. Some shows that are aimed at this age group are educational and “pro-social”; others are highly questionable (see page 12). Says Tandon, “There are cartoons that are not OK that preschoolers are often watching because their older siblings or parents are watching.”

Going mobile
And those older siblings — especially as they enter the tween years — are watching, a lot. A huge national study by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) discovered a tremendous jump in media use at about the age of 11. The study found an increase of more than three hours a day of total media use at that age. Eleven- to 14-year-olds average about eight and a half hours of media per day; however, when you take media multitasking into account, it’s actually 12 hours (we’ll get to that in a moment). This is the age when all that new technology really comes into play: According to the KFF study, almost half of all 8- to 18-year-olds say they’ve watched TV online; one-third of them have watched TV on a cell phone. “The proliferation of new ways to consume TV content has actually led to an increase of 38 minutes of daily TV consumption,” states the report (find it online at, and 11 percent of that is being watched on iTunes or Hulu. “Thus, even in this new media world, television viewing — in one form or another — continues to dominate media consumption, taking up about four and a half hours a day in young people’s lives.” That’s up from just less than four hours in 2004.

And though preschoolers are less likely to log onto Hulu, their screen time has gone mobile, too — in the back of the family car. That drives Renton dad Colin Walker nuts. “I still find it hard to believe how many times I am in the grocery store parking lot and I see a minivan with TV screens on, playing some type of cartoon or kids’ TV show,” Walker says. “Is it that much to ask kids to survive a 15-minute drive to the store without getting a Dora fix?”

Walker keeps his own 2-year-old daughter’s screen time to a minimum. “We’re raising a generation of kids who are always plugged in,” he says. “There’s a lot to be learned from looking outside the window, reading, listening to music and dreaming. In a way, TV turns on blinders to the outside world.”

Not really watching
TVTry to get the attention of the average 12-year-old these days while the TV is on. It’s practically impossible, but maybe not for the reasons you’d think. Not actually engrossed in a show, most tweens and teens these days have the TV on while they’re doing something else, and that something, more and more, ain’t knitting.

According to the KFF report, 39 percent of seventh- to 12th-graders say they multitask with another medium most of the time they are watching TV; another 29 percent say they do so some of the time. Is that such a bad thing?

“There’s no question that kids are able to multitask better than we are,” says Christakis. “But we don’t yet know what the implications are; don’t know what’s being lost. It does come at some expense; you just don’t do two things simultaneously as well as one.” Christakis and others worry that what could be lost is the ability to concentrate deeply on one thing at a time. “As far as I can see, that’s going to continue to be important,” he says. “You definitely want your surgeon to have an exquisite attention span. You want your pilot to be able to stay focused on something that may not actually be very interesting."

Holly Morrison, a Spanaway mother of two girls, ages 10 and 13, says multitasking sort of snuck up on her. Each girl has a laptop, a cell phone with WiFi and texting, an iPod with video, an e-reader and a flat-screen TV in their room. The family car has DVD players built right in. “I’ve bought them some of the gadgets,” Morrison says, “and family has gifted them others. But I am now at a point when it bugs me.”

When Morrison found out that her daughters were switching between Facebook and instant messaging while doing homework, she installed “net nanny” software. But other limits have been harder to enforce. “They started sneaking an iPod and [Nintendo] DSi into the bathroom cabinets and taking extended bathroom breaks,” Morrison says. And during their free time, “it’s like they bombard themselves with every means possible,” says Morrison. “TV time involves a TV, plus laptop, cell phone, iPod on the side, DSi in their hands, etc.”

Bothell mom Mary-Leah Moore is raising four kids — three teens and a tween — all of whom are “expert media multitaskers,” according to Moore. All have cell phones and Facebook accounts, all have daily homework that requires the computer, and all have favorite TV shows, but Moore says strict rules don’t work at her house. “I’ve learned that natural consequences are the most effective,” she says. If the kids stay up watching TV or texting too late, they suffer by being tired the next day. “I feel like that works better than anything else,” Moore says.

“I’ve tried so many different ways to regulate the whole thing, and I’ve found that the more I’ve stayed out of it, the more they figure it out themselves.”

So, should you stay out of it? “The first question you should ask is whether your child is meeting your expectations for them at school,” says Christakis. If not, Christakis says, it might be a sign that there’s not enough focusing going on. And even if the grades are great, there’s still a cost to this new form of distracted TV viewing. “What parents can safely know is that if their child is multitasking, their brain is not working that well on any of the tasks,” says Christakis. “And we just don’t know enough about the long-term implications. We are developing incredibly short attention spans.”

Maybe it’s not all bad news that kids are no longer hanging on every word that comes out of iCarly’s mouth; some parents would rather their kids play games or interact with friends (even online) than just sit and stare at the TV, especially if homework is already finished. The KFF study found that parents tolerate media multitasking much better when it occurs separately from homework time.

But Tandon reminds parents that all screen time comes at the expense of something else: “If children are sitting in front of a screen for three to five hours a day, what are they not doing that’s potentially beneficial? Reading, playing outdoors?

“There’s a limited number of hours in a day.”

Kristen Russell is ParentMap’s managing editor and the mother of two media-multitasking straight-A students.

Did you know that . . .

71% of 8- to 18-year-olds have televisions in their bedrooms. 

79% of 8- to 18-year-olds have three or more TV sets in their home. 

64% of tweens and teens say the TV is on during meals. 

5 hours is what the average 11- to 14-year-old spends watching TV and movies each day.

Source: the Kaiser Family Foundation

Tips for TV use

For babies:
Avoid TV for babies younger than age 2. Choose activities that promote language development and brain growth, such as talking, playing, reading, singing and enjoying music.

For children older than 2:
If you allow TV time, choose age-appropriate programs. Involve older children in setting guidelines for what to watch. Use guides and ratings to help, but beware of unproven claims that programs or DVDs are educational. Even cartoons produced for children can be violent or overstimulating.

• Limit TV time to no more than two hours per day. Less is better.
• Keep TV turned off during meals.
• Set “media-free” days and plan other fun things to do instead.
• Avoid using TV as a reward.
• Turn off TV when a chosen program is over. When no one is actively watching, turn the television off.
• Watch TV with your child. Talk about what you see and engage with your child about the content.
• Keep TVs out of bedrooms.
Source: Dr. Pooja Tandon, Seattle Children’s Research Institute

• For media reviews: Common Sense Media
• The effects of TV on kids, and tips for TV viewing: The Center on Media and Child Health, Harvard Medical School,
• Download the entire Kaiser Family Foundation report.
• Explanation of TV ratings.
• To link to articles about establishing good TV viewing habits, federal rules about kids’ TV and more, visit

TV shows

Shows to avoid for preschoolers:
• SpongeBob SquarePants (Nickelodeon)
• Tom and Jerry Tales (The WB)
• Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Cartoon Network)
• Most superhero shows (Batman, Spiderman)
• Transformers (Cartoon Network)
Source: Pooja Tandon, Ph.D., Seattle Children’s Research Institute

Recommended shows for preschoolers:
• Super WHY! (PBS Kids)
• Curious George (PBS Kids)
• Angelina Ballerina (Sprout)
• The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! (PBS Kids)
• Caillou (PBS Kids)
• Clifford the Big Red Dog (PBS Kids)
• Imagination Movers (Disney Channel)
• Ni Hao, Kai-lan (Nickelodeon)
• Timmy Time (Disney Channel)
• WordWorld (PBS Kids)

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