TV: How Much Is Too Much?
By Jeanne Sather


As a child, I watched hours of mindless TV shows with my brother and sisters. I also argued, whined, moaned, pouted, sulked, and complained bitterly when our mom finally made us turn it off after nearly a half-dozen hours of nonstop viewing.

And still, I like to think I turned out OK. After all, I rarely watch TV now--maybe only a couple of hours a month.

If I wanted to play devil's advocate, I'd say we parents just worry too much about our kids. Our kids work hard in school, so in the evenings, on weekends, and when they're home from school for the summer, what's wrong with a few hours of downtime in front of the tube?

"A few hours a day is too much TV," says Yale University psychologist Dorothy Singer, co director of the Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center. "Use the summer to read, play outdoors, hike, catch up on hobbies, do crafts, visit interesting places, and just spend some time daydreaming."

What the research shows
Unless you've been raising your kids in a cabin without electricity at the back of beyond, you know about the research on children, violence, and TV. It's hard to ignore. It's also hard to ignore the statistics on the number of hours most children spend in front of a television set.

A quick summary:

The average U.S. household has at least one TV set turned on for about seven hours a day.

The average school-aged child spends 27 hours per week watching TV (some preschoolers watch much more).

Over the course of a year, children spend more time watching TV than they spend in school or participating in any other activity except sleep.

Children's TV shows contain about 20 violent acts per hour.

A high percentage of a child's viewing time is spent watching shows intended for adults: 40 percent of a 6-year-old's viewing time, and about 80 percent of a 12-year-old's viewing time.

The average American child will have watched 100,000 acts of televised violence, including 8,000 murders; by the time he or she finishes the sixth grade. 

Contrast these numbers with the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that a child watch no more than one to two supervised hours of TV a day.

The result? It is generally accepted that all this TV watching has three main effects on children: They become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, they become more fearful of the world around them, and they are more likely to behave toward others in aggressive or harmful ways.

In addition, that entire sitting around makes them fat. American kids are in worse physical shape than they've ever been.

Getting control of the remote
Here are three good strategies for reducing the amount of time your children spend watching TV this summer.

1. Don't have a TV in the house. I've always admired those parents who solved the TV problem by simply not having a TV. You can't watch what you don't have. If that seems too extreme, consider getting rid of the box for the summer. Or for a week. "We weren't exposed to violence on TV," says Jim, a 30-year-old man who grew up without TV, "and we know that if you hit someone, it hurts!"

"We were also very well-read kids, and I learned to play games, work quietly alone, and I developed a vivid imagination. Today, I am not a TV addict. I'm fine without a television--although I'd miss Star Trek!" 

2. Limit the number of viewing hours. I've used this strategy with my two sons for years. Their limit is one hour a day. If one child chooses to watch a different program than the one his brother wants to watch, he has to leave the room during his brother's TV time. Many days, my children watch no TV at all. I don't allow them to carry these hours over to the next day, but I will bend the rules to allow them to watch a two-hour movie on the weekend.

3. Limit the programs your kids watch. Decide with your children what programs they can watch during the week. Oregon mom Karen Hoskins allows her three children "pretty much unlimited" viewing of the local PBS channel on summer evenings.

More ideas
Whatever strategy you choose, here are some other ways to reduce TV's influence in your home:

1. Move the box. Get the TV out of the living room or family room. Don't allow TV watching during dinner.

2. Post a warning label. Tape a sign on the TV: "Caution! Too much TV leads to violent behavior and obesity." It's a daily reminder of TV's dangers.

3. Be a good role model. Don't watch TV yourself just because you don't feel like doing anything else. Don't leave the TV on for hours. Kids do what you do, not what you say.

4. Make viewing special. Make watching TV a special event, not a daily habit. One year, my sons and I set aside Friday nights to watch old black-and-white horror movies on video, complete with pizza. Over a couple of months, we watched The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, Dracula, and other classics.

Karen Hoskins says she does something similar: "We have a special time set aside every Saturday night where we rotate through the family and the person whose turn it is gets to choose the movie, or choose a family game to play.... We've done this for a few years now. The kids so look forward to it."

5. Watch with your kids. Consider a "no TV unless a parent is watching" rule--not forever, but maybe during holiday vacations or a week during the summer. See what happens.

6. TV-free Fridays. Consider making TV off-limits on certain days of the week. Be sure to warn your kids in advance. Hoskins says TV is off-limits for her family during the daytime in the summer. "We had a conversation with the kids and said it will be off during the day," she says. "Fortunately, I was home most of the time so it could be monitored."

7. Read to them instead. Be willing to read to your kids if you're trying to reduce their TV time. Or play Scrabble or another favorite game.

8. Offer alternatives to TV. Keep a drawer supplied with inexpensive, fun things to occupy your kids. Think water balloons, balsa airplanes, origami paper, colored pipe cleaners, and so on. Dover Publications offers dozens of inexpensive activity books, including stickers, paper dolls, mazes, and crossword puzzles.

If you have a well-stocked drawer like this, you'll always have a reply to the age-old complaint, "But there's nothing to do!"



About the Author

Jeanne Sather is a Seattle-based writer and editor and the mother of two sons, who provide inspiration for (and criticism of) much of her writing. In addition to writing for several Web sites, Jeanne is working on her first book.