Feb. 8, 2001 -- If it's on television, chances are your kids are watching it. From violent cartoons to chair-throwing, hair-pulling antics on the Jerry Springer Show, your kids are absorbing a pretty distorted view of the world. And a new study finds that sexual innuendo on television is on the rise.
Two out of every three TV programs last season had sexual references or sexy behavior, according to the study released by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, an independent social research agency. Add this to the 3,500-plus studies conducted over the last 50 years showing the detrimental effects that television has on kids, and it's no wonder the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has stepped in, issuing guidelines on TV viewing.
Television, video games, movies -- "these are not benign, not just entertainment," says Michael Rich, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Rich is a member of the AAP's committee on public education.
"Children are learning lessons from everything they see. The question is, is this the world you want them to see? In many ways, [TV viewing] is an addictive behavior," Rich tells WebMD. "Kids will object to it at first. But once the habit is broken, it's not so hard to stay away from TV. The real key is to decide what you want your kids to do and stick to it."
How, then, can you gain control over your children's viewing habits? Here's a helpful list of 15 do's and don'ts for parents:
First off, don't create the "forbidden fruit syndrome," where television becomes much more attractive because it's not permitted in the house. "It can sometimes become even more fun and challenging for a child to try to sneak around parents' rules -- when they aren't looking -- than to comply with them, says Thomas N. Robinson, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford University. Robinson also sits on the AAP's committee on public education.
- Negotiate with your kids to set a "media budget" -- the number of hours a day/week kids can spend watching television, movies, or playing video games -- as long as you have approved the content. The AAP recommends one or two hours a day, but stay flexible, Robinson says.
- Discuss the reasons why you are turning off the television or restricting access. "Get the kids on your side from the start," Robinson tells WebMD. "Parents should not just be the enforcers. But parents are in the leadership position and do have the authority to set limits."
- Take the television from your child's bedroom -- or don't put one there in the first place. Such "private-viewing spaces" lead to twice the television or video game time, Rich says. "If a child has a television in his/her bedroom, the parents have given up all control over what and how much their child watches or the games he/she plays," Robinson tells WebMD. "Parents should be able to say 'No.'"
- Don't give kids TV-viewing privileges as a reward. "There are much more creative rewards parents can think of," Robinson says.
- Do let kids earn TV time, though. "Let them make a choice," Rich says. "If they want TV time, they have to spend time doing something else, like playing hockey or spending time on a project."
- Praise kids when they stay away from television, and when they do something more constructive, Robinson says. "Instead of just yelling at them when they are glued to the television, parents should try to remember to praise their children when they are behaving well. Saying something like, 'I am so proud of you for starting your homework right away instead of watching television' is very powerful."
- Become a better role model. Parents should set a better example -- so read, take up a hobby, get involved in sports, Robinson tells WebMD. "The kids who watch the most television often have parents who also watch a lot of television."
- Watch television with your kids. "That allows you to decide if you like what they're watching. You can also discuss content," Rich says. "Rather than them accepting at face value the violence or whatever, you can discuss with them how do you think it felt to get hit by a bullet, how do you think that person's family felt, etc. Look at the consequences of violence."
- What if kids roll their eyes? "If kids don't want to discuss it, they don't watch it," Rich says. "You turn the television off. It isn't a constitutionally guaranteed right that you get to watch any television at any time. We have to realize that many, many people tend to use television as wallpaper. They just have it going all the time, so the content isn't noted, isn't dealt with in any way. Just remember: It's not a benign force in these kids' lives. They're always learning."
- Don't rely on the V-Chip to curb kids' viewing. "The V-Chip works as well as the rating system does," Rich says. "The problem is, it's a technological fix, and if it's anything like VCRs, kids will be able to work them better than the parents can."
- Tape educational programs. "There's fascinating stuff on television, if people are open to it and willing to videotape it," Rich tells WebMD. "The problem is that most people 'veg out' and turn on the tube during prime time."
- Worried about what your child is watching at a friend's house? "Some parents will talk to the parents of the friend, explain the rules in their own house," Rich says. "Some parents would be horrified to do that."
- Let kids enforce their own rules at friends' houses, Robinson says. "The ultimate goal is to get your child excited about doing other things besides watching television. They will learn to suggest alternatives to their friends (e.g., 'Television is boring. Let's go outside and play instead.')"
- Never underestimate the impact of video games. "Some kids spend hours and hours per day just playing video games," Robinson tells WebMD. "There is now good evidence that, just like violent movies and TV shows, violent video games lead to more aggressive behavior in kids." Because they are interactive, video games not only teach certain behaviors but they also let kids practice violent skills, rehearse violent scenes.
"Too many parents assume they have no ability to control kids and they use television to calm them down or as a babysitter or as bribery," Rich says. "In many ways, parents default their responsibility, default their power in a child's life to the television, and that's not appropriate."
Think about it: Is the world your children watch -- whatever the media -- what you want them to see? "Children under age 8 are developmentally incapable of discerning the difference between fantasy and reality," Rich tells WebMD. "Televison, movies, video games are not just entertainment. Children learn lessons from everything they see."