May 17, 2011 8:17 PM
Do your school-aged kids spend much of their free time in front of a TV, computer monitor, or other type of screen? If so, you're not alone. Children's overall screen time has more than doubled since 1999 to more than 7 hours a day.
There are many reasons for parents to be concerned. Among them, struggles with school, attention problems, sleeping disorders, and obesity are all linked with excessive media time. According to Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, too much TV time doesn't just displace time that kids could spend being physically active. It also encourages children to eat more of the unhealthy, high-calorie foods that they see advertised.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 2 hours of entertainment media time for school-aged kids a day (including 1 to 2 hours of educational, nonviolent TV). If your children spend that much time in front of TV alone, it probably won't be easy to get them away from it -- or away from any screen, for that matter. If your son is a movie buff or your daughter an electronics enthusiast, you've got your work cut out for you.
But with perseverance -- and patience and consistency -- you can help your kids scale back their media time. Here's how.
Try these strategies for trimming screen time.
Don't feel that you have to go cold turkey. Make gradual changes. Do your kids usually watch hours of TV daily or are they used to constantly having the TV on as background noise? If so, try cutting down 1 hour a week to start.
Unplug your child's room. Having a TV in your kid's room can interfere with her sleep, making her wired at night and tired during the day. It can also lead to overeating and more sedentary behavior, and an increased risk of obesity. Keep the TV and computer out of your child's room. If you put TVs and computers in a central location, you can better monitor the time spent in front of them.
Create a screen time schedule. Once you've established a TV time limit, sit down with your child every week and let him figure out how he plans to use it. Just make sure that screen time doesn't occur during meals or within an hour of bedtime. Otherwise, honor the agreement. For example, let your child watch TV freely, without interruptions from you.
"If kids have a say in the schedule, they'll be more likely to follow it," says Paul Ballas, DO, a child psychiatrist and medical director of the Green Tree School Clinic in Philadelphia.
Cover the TV when it's not in use. Put a blanket over the unit or store it in a cabinet with the doors closed when no one is watching it. "I've used this technique with my patients, and it's basically 'out of sight, out of mind,'" Ballas tells WebMD. "If it's not obviously out in front of them, they'll be less likely to be drawn to it."
Talk to older kids about TV advertising. You might approach this by helping them see how advertisers often work hard to persuade them to make poor food choices. Then talk about healthier choices such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This can lead to a great discussion about healthy food and activity.
Mind your own screen time. If you spend a chunk of your day surfing the net or watching TV, you can't expect to pry your kids loose from their screens. Keep track of your screen time. Avoid channel surfing, and only watch TV shows that you really watch. "We tell people to pick a show, turn it on, then turn it off," says Donald Shifrin, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and a member of the committee on communications for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Don't just keep looking for shows."
Encourage other activities. Reading, doing puzzles or board games, playing outside, and spending time with friends or family are a few of the healthy activities your kids can engage in instead of watching TV, playing video games, or being on the computer.
Stand your ground. Be consistent. Chances are,cutting back on your child's screen time will cause some conflicts. "You need to remember that you are in control," Shifrin says. "Think of yourself as the electronics posse." But also stay calm and remind your child why these limits are important. In the end, you and your child will reap the rewards. A recent study in the journal Pediatrics showed that kids whose parents set limits on their kids' TV and other screen time were more likely to be active than children whose parents gave their kids free rein.