Watching television is a big part of many children's lives. A University of Georgia scientist said many kids sit in front of a TV longer than they spend in school.
"Think for a minute how long your TV is on," said Diane Bales, an Extension Service child development specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. "In many homes, it's on an hour or so in the morning and again from right after school until bedtime."
Plusses and minuses
And although many positive shows are on the air, children can see many negative things on TV, too, Bales said.
Children who spend three or more hours a day using visual media such as TV or video games tend to have less success at school and poorer reading skills, she said. They tend to be less physically fit, too, than children who spend more time playing outside.
She notes, too, how quickly children begin to mimic the things they see on TV, particularly violence.
"Research groups have watched children as they watch TV and in free play after watching," Bales said. "Children act out what they see. If they see others taking turns, they practice taking turns. If they see aggression, they tend to fight. After watching Power Rangers, they want to 'become' Power Rangers."
Family TV time
Bales said it's important that parents watch shows with their children, rather than letting the TV set babysit. When the whole family watches a show, parents can screen shows for content they don't want their children to see, she said.
"And that provides a perfect time for parents to talk with their children about the show and see how much the children understand about what they saw," she said. "They can talk about why the behavior they saw was acceptable or unacceptable."
Parents are role models for television use. Bales said adults should watch TV in moderation, whether children live in the home or not.
"Don't just turn on the TV to see if something is on," she said. "Something is always on. And pay attention to other media besides television. Video games, computer time and videotaped movies can all be overused."
Using media wisely
She offers some suggestions on using TV and other visual media wisely.
* Limit TV time. Let each person in the house pick two or three shows he really wants to watch. If a selected show isn't on, turn off the TV.
* Coordinate with school. Look for programs or Internet resources that children can relate to what they're learning in classes. Or look for shows that relate to your child's interests or your own.
* Use commercials to discuss the show with your child. Talk about what you just saw and predict what will happen next.
* Look for show ratings. TV producers rate their shows based on language, sexual content and violence. Many parenting magazines or resources list independent ratings that may give you more help in deciding if certain shows are appropriate.
* Provide other activities. During TV or video downtime, encourage children and adults in your family to do other things: play outside, read a book, play a board game or participate in sports, music or other lessons or clubs.
Bales has three pieces of advice about television: use it moderately, be firm and consistent about rules and practice what you preach.
"Of course, those rules are true for almost any issue parents have with children," Bales said. "Why should they be any different for television and media use?"