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What's On? The Smart Approach to Watching TV

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Lots of parents—stressed or not—use television as an occasional babysitter. In fact, the average American kid watches three to four hours of television a day. The recent tough recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under 2 watch no TV at all underscores the difficulty all well—intentioned parents have trying to work out what's best for their children and what's realistic. As in all things, a little compromise can go a long way.

 A Child's Perception of TV

 Guidelines for Responsible TV Watching

A Child's Perception of TV

A child under age 5 cannot distinguish between the many types of information available on television: commercials that sell products, fictional dramas, talk shows, sitcoms, and news. Your preschooler lives with one foot in fantasyland at all times anyway, so TV is always "real" at this age. This is why disaster dramas are just as frightening as documentaries about real disasters. Only at about age 7 will your child be able to distinguish the real from the imaginary. A preschooler believes that the actors on TV continue to feel and live in the same way between shows as they do during a show. Also, children under 3 are fascinated by television's fast-moving bits of imagery, but they don't make the narrative transition from one image to the next. That's why such techniques as flashbacks and multiple story lines make no sense to them at all.

Guidelines for Responsible TV Watching

Add to these developmental issues the content of TV programming, with its high component of aggression and violence, and it's easy to see why some might suggest a total ban on watching. But that's not necessary. What follows are some ways to make television watching a productive part of your preschooler's life.

  • Set a limit on hours watched per day: one to two hours is plenty.
  • Discuss your TV-watching plan with your partner, your babysitter, and anyone else who has regular contact with your child so what you're saying is not contradicted by others.
  • Don't use television as a reward.
  • Keep meals TV-free.
  • Watch with your child. It tells her that you think the activity is more than something to keep her busy while you're doing something else. It also allows you to explain the show and to point out the difference between it and the commercials.
  • Plan what to watch. This cuts down on surfing, which just increases confusion and unwanted exposure for your child. Good shows to watch are those that ask questions of a child and encourage her response. If a program you've watched talks about numbers or letters, try to follow up with your own examples ("A is for apple; it's also the letter of Grandma's first name. What's Grandma's first name? Right, it's Alice") or with books that can extend the idea.
  • Tape shows that you'd like to watch with your child so you can put them on as your schedule permits.
  • Avoid news programs that concentrate on the day's violent events.
  • Remember: Just because something is labeled a children's program does not mean it's free of violence. Don't turn kids over to Saturday cartoons, for example, without knowing what they're watching.
  • Turn off the program when it ends. This says to your child that it's time for another activity, which you should have in mind.

    Adapted from Encounters With Children by Suzanne D. Dixon, M.D., and Martin T. Stein, M.D. (Mosby, 2000).


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