What would your life be like if television, the internet, and computers suddenly didn’t work anymore? The amount of uneasiness you have in reaction to that question is a good indicator of how influential electronic media is in your life. Most of us remember the days when there was no Internet and the television offered about 12 channels. What is more, we had to get up and change the television channels manually! Now the choices for what to watch are overwhelming.
The influence of media in the home, and especially with children, is something that concerns me very much. How balanced are we in the amount of media we allow in our lives? By the end of the day, has the amount of time you stared at a screen been longer than the amount of time you were face to face with other human beings? How about face to face with your kids?
Research has been done on the issue of how we balance media time versus family time. The February 2004 issue of The Journal of Marriage and Family cited research that found the average family with adolescents spends about four hours a week together. Most of that time is eating or watching TV. Other studies break this into minutes a day. Reed Larson, PhD, of the University of Illinois, found that the average couple spends about 19 minutes a day talking to each other. He further found this average time dropped to only 7 minutes a day when it was couples talking alone (no family or friends around).
Compare that with studies on how much time we spend watching TV. The 2005 Neilson study reports that the average American home watched 8 hours, 11 minutes of TV a day! The average per person is 4 hours, 32 minutes. No wonder we don’t have time to talk to our spouses and kids, we’re all too busy watching TV! Add in an average of 7 hours a week on video games, and an average of 5 hours a week on the internet (I think this is number is much higher in reality), the average goes up to over 5 hours a day of screen time per person. These studies indicate that most American families are more in touch with media than they are with their own family members.
Numerous other studies have linked media exposure with psychological, health, and behavioral problems in children and teens. A Fox News report from April 4, 2006 cited 15 studies that have linked increased sexual activity, increases in violence and social isolation, and increases in early childhood obesity with exposure to two or more hours of TV per day. Other studies have found links between increased video gaming, television watching, and behavioral problems such as defiance and attention problems.
There is no doubt that certain shows, programs, music, games, and magazines have very positive effects on kids. But there is also no doubt in my mind that much of the media that kids are exposed to is potentially very harmful. The harmfulness can come in two ways: 1) kids spending too much time engaged in media, and 2) kids being exposed to the “wrong” media (meaning it doesn’t hold to the values and behaviors you want for your child, or media they aren’t mature enough to process).
I often work with parents who are very disturbed about their children’s disrespectful, defiant, and destructive behavior. I’m not surprised to find out that many of these kids have televisions, computers, and game consoles in their bedrooms. When these kids are playing games like “Grand Theft Auto”, watching MTV, and surfing the Net unsupervised it should be no surprise they behave poorly and show signs of stress and anxiety. Kids learn by modeling and imitating. Who or what is serving as their model when parents aren’t watching?
With these scary thoughts in mind, let me offer some tips. First and foremost; as parents we must aggressively monitor the media exposure that occurs in our homes. Parents are the guardians of the home boundaries and set limits on what comes in and for how long. This includes the internet, television, movies, video games, music, and even magazines. The parents need to be the first line of defense by filtering what is accepted into the home and what kids see and hear. For example, I have worked with several children who have anxiety problems made much worse by watching the news. Often, the parents didn’t think their children were tuning in and have found out too late the importance of shielding their young children from too much “bad news.”
Secondly, be in charge of “screen time.” This means the amount of time spent in front of a screen (TV, videogame, computer, smart phone, etc.). Based on the age of your child, set a daily allowable dose of screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children under age two should have no screen time, and elementary school children have no more than two hours of screen time per day. Teens are recommended no more than four hours daily. This makes sense, as many of the studies previously mentioned found problems arise when kids are exposed to more than two hours daily.
Thirdly, parents must set a good example by controlling their own use of media. Get out of the habit of using the TV as “background noise.” Make a habit of setting a “screen free” day once a week. Talk with your children about what they experience from the media. Ask them what messages they are receiving about sensitive topics such as sex, violence, what’s “cool” and the like. This can be especially interesting when you ask what messages they receive from commercials. You’ll find that kids are very good at “reading between the lines” with commercials. Following these guidelines is easy to talk about but hard to put into practice. If your kids are used to a lot of media exposure, they’ll protest the changes you make. However, setting these limits will definitely pay off in the long run.