How much TV should my child watch?

The best way to handle how much television and video your child watches is to think of them as refined sugar: You want your child to enjoy this seductive stuff sometimes without consuming too much. So you’ll need to stay on top of the time your child spends in front of the television.

The average American child watches three to four hours a day, despite recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children should watch no more than an hour or two a day, and that children under 2 should watch no television at all.

Starting out tough from day one is the key to keeping viewing time under control. It’s a lot easier to relax your standards later than it is to wean an 18-month-old from a twice-a-day Dora or Blue’s Clues habit.

Here are tips on how to use television as a learning tool:


Limit the amount of TV your child watches

Since your child is under age 2, it’s best to keep TV watching to a bare minimum. If you choose to allow some television, break it up into 15-minute increments. Much more than that, and your child’s brain can shift to autopilot.

Once your child hits 2, limit his or her total viewing time to an hour a day – even that amount is a lot for an active toddler. You should also keep the television out of your child’s bedroom and turned off during meal times.

Watch programs, not television

Rather than sitting down to watch whatever happens to be on, carefully select the program your child’s going to watch, and turn off the set when that program is over. Record programs ahead of time, if possible, so your child can watch what you want, when you want.

A two-minute warning that a show (or the segment of it that you’re letting your child watch) is about to end will help him or her transition to the next activity.

Choose calm, quiet programs

Slower-paced viewing gives your child time to think about what he or she is watching and absorb the information. Lots of action and quickly changing images will only confuse your child.

Some research suggests that children who watch violence on TV are more likely to display aggressive behavior. Stay away from scary shows, too. Instead, choose simple programs that emphasize interactivity. The best shows are those that inspire your child to makes sounds, say words, sing, and dance.

Watch with your child

A recent study looked at three groups: children with unlimited access to television, children with moderate access to television who watched without parents, and children with moderate access to television who watched with a parent.

The last group scored significantly higher academically than the other groups. Just being there says to your child, “What you do is important to me.”

Of course, many of us have moments when we resort to using television or a video as a babysitter, but when you leave your child alone with the TV for a long time, you send a signal that you don’t care what is watched. If you can, bring a basket of laundry to sort or some other task into the room so you can work and watch. Then it becomes an activity the two of you can enjoy together.

Help your child watch with a critical eye

Explain what’s going on in the show, and encourage your child to ask questions and relate what’s happening in the show to his or her own life. If you’re watching something that can be paused, press the pause button as often as you need to so that you have ample time to discuss what’s going on.

If you’re watching a recorded TV show, you’ll probably want to fast-forward through the commercials. If you’re stuck watching commercials, help your child understand the difference between those and the show itself.

Extend the show’s content with activities or books

If you and your child have just finished watching a Sesame Street segment that introduces a number, talk about it later and find other examples to reinforce it. When you’re setting the table, for example, you might say, “Hey, today’s number was 3, and there are three places to set!” Then read and discuss a book that explores number concepts.

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