Here's a startling fact: Today's young children spend nearly as much time in front of some sort of screen, whether it's a computer, video game, or TV, as they spend playing outside, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. To most parents, this sounds about as healthy as having a candy bar after every meal.
Ours is the first generation of parents to be challenged with raising children in a digital age. Times have changed from when TV consisted of just three stations beamed from a nearby big city and you had to negotiate with your little sister to change the channel. As new-media families, we have to contend with literally hundreds of cable channels, video games (both TV-based and handheld), and even DVDs in the car. To help our children manage the barrage of media, we need to set limits and ensure that what they do see helps rather than harms them.
Keeping Things in Balance
We're all familiar with the USDA Food Pyramid, which ranks food groups so that you can tell at a glance that plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are good for you, while fats and sweets should be limited. It stresses variety and balance in the daily diet, a concept that can be borrowed when it comes to your child's media diet. Balance is the key.
Media consumption need not be an all-or-nothing proposition. But you do have to look at the overall picture of how you and your family are using media. Television, for example, can play a key role in helping young children wind down and relax. Familiar shows that are designed for children (from Sesame Street to the preschool-friendly options on Noggin) can be soothing, and the fact that they're on at the same time each day brings predictability to a child's sometime hectic life. A half-hour of Little Bear, for example, can help your 3 year old make the transition from school to the dinner hour, whereas five straight hours of TV on Saturdays is hardly going to benefit her.
Take an informal inventory of how your child spends her free time on a typical day and weekend. Be sure to include all forms of media — computer, TV, video games — as well as other activities, such as pretend play, reading books, playing outside, doing craft projects, playing organized sports, and so on. As a rule of thumb, the younger the child, the less screen time is appropriate. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 2 watch no TV. If your preschool-age child is consuming more than four hours of media per day, some changes are in order — bearing in mind, too, that the younger the child, the lower that number should be.
It’s also important to understand the quality of the content your child is seeing. Clearly the "fats and sugars" of a child's media diet are the hours of commercial TV, which can induce an unresponsive, zombie-like trance in anyone. Even worse, the advertisements on most TV fare aimed at kids tend to be for junk and fast foods, toys, and even more media, like video games. Do your best to reduce these minutes by increasing other forms of active play. There's a good reason: According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, "excessive TV viewing has been linked to obesity and may lead to decreased school achievement, poor body image, increased aggression, and increased risk of substance abuse." Keep a vigilant eye on quantity and quality of TV. Too much of the wrong content can steal precious childhood minutes, time that is better spent maintaining a fish tank, watching a bird make a nest, or playing flashlight tag with a friend.
Here are some ways to be sure your child is viewing quality content, engaging in quality interactive games, and getting the benefits of technology:
- Make your own media. Give your child a low-cost digital camera, such as the Kodak Easy Share C300 ($20) and teach her how to plug it into your TV. This is a great way to review memorable events and can be a rich language experience for very young children, as they name family members from their last birthday party, for example.
- Provide exciting non-tech options in your child's life. Instead of trying to remove current media from your child's life, continue to enrich her playtime with new, concrete, interesting alternatives, so your child will want to turn off the TV.
- Watch and play along with your child. More and more shows aimed at young children, such as Dora the Explorer and BoohBah, come with interactive or movement components to them. Pull your toddler into your lap and watch together; sing songs from the shows away from the TV.
- Do your homework. Understand and use the film, TV, and video game rating systems and read reviews to ensure there will be a good match with your child's age, abilities, and interests.
- Keep your TV and computer in a central, high-traffic part of the house, within your range of vision. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents keep television sets out of children's bedrooms. Going further, a study by the National Institute for Media and the Family has connected low student achievement in school with the presence of TV sets in children's bedrooms.
- Establish consistent "media free" times, particularly at meal times. (That means no hand-held games for older kids, or cell phones or PDAs for grown-ups).
- Look into educational games. There are lots of high-quality games that run on TV consoles and different portable platforms. The V.Smile Pocket and the Leapster L-Max ($80 each) are both great. Both of these devices have built-in screens and speakers, so the games are at home both in the living room and on the road. There is a growing number of age-appropriate games that run on Gameboys, Playstations, and Nintendos for preschoolers, featuring characters like Curious George, Dora, and the Care Bears.
When choosing games for the youngest players, look for those that have multiplayer roles, and make sure you have at least two controllers so that the experience can become a social one. Also consider the increasing numbers of game titles that get children up and moving around, with dance pads, drums, karaoke microphones, and motion-sensing cameras. Keep in mind that many games are too hard for younger children, though. They'll need your help and may even prefer to simply watch as you or an older sibling plays the game.