Dr. MJ Bazos MD, Patient Handout
Television and the Family
Guidelines for Parents

After the family, television is probably the most important influence on child development and behavior in our society. Children in the United States view an average of 3 to 4 hours of TV daily. By high school graduation, the average teen will have spent more time watching TV than time in the classroom. TV’s popularity is easy to understand: TV informs us, entertains us, and keeps us company. TV, to use its own cliche, brings the world into our living rooms. It’s not easy to document the effects of such extensive TV watching by children. However, TV viewing is related to aggressive behavior, violence, and being overweight. It may also affect what children learn, how they interact with others, and promote stereotypes, inappropriate sexual behavior, and the use of drugs or alcohol. With such a powerful influence, you can see that helping your child use TV in a positive way can help your family to lessen or avoid TV’s negative impact.

Factors to consider

Time The amount of time that children spend watching TV is a major concern. If your child spends 3 to 4 hours a day watching TV, then time for other activities is limited. In addition to time spent watching TV, increasing use of VCR movies and video games adds to the hours spent in front of the TV screen. Childhood is a time of growth and development. All children need to play because it helps them learn valuable physical, mental, and social skills. Children also need to read and be read to, to talk, and to be involved in healthy activities with their peers and with adults. TV viewing often limits the time that should be devoted to these important activities. It rarely promotes the physical, mental, and social skills that are necessary for children’s growth and development.

Violence Violence in American society today is a major concern. While the violence that children see on TV is not the only influence on aggressive or violent behavior by children and youth, it can be a factor. Children who see a lot of violence on TV are more likely to view violence as an effective way of settling conflicts. There is little or no teaching on TV of the many positive ways to solve problems. Some TV shows contain a lot of violence. By watching TV with your child, you can point out that violence on TV is not real and that the actor has not really been killed or hurt as your young child might believe. You might explain that in real life violent acts cause pain or even death. You should also stress that violent behavior is not the best way to solve problems. As you talk about the violence shown on TV, you can help lessen its impact. The best solution in most situations, however, is for you to remove the violent programs from your children’s TV schedule.

Learning Television, through programming and commercials, influences how your children learn and helps shape their attitudes toward nutrition, sexuality, and alcohol use, among other things. Many studies have shown that developmentally appropriate children’s shows clearly have a positive effect on children’s learning. However, because shows are usually limited to under 60 minutes, complex issues are
sometimes partially or poorly depicted. Watching too much TV may lead your child to look for simple answers to complex problems. When used constructively and in moderation, you can use television as a positive tool to help children learn.

Nutrition Children who watch a lot of TV are often less physically fit, because TV takes time away from play and other physical activity. So it’s not surprising that too much TV watching may play a role in obesity among children. There are also many food commercials during children’s TV programs, mostly for high-calorie and/or highfat foods such as candy, snack foods, and presweetened cereals. Ads for meat, milk products, bread, and juice make up only about 4% of the food ads shown during “children’s viewing time.” Children may get a message that doesn’t give them the full picture about the kinds of foods they should eat to keep healthy.

Sexuality and alcohol TV exposes children to adult behaviors by showing these actions as normal and riskfree. Using alcohol and being sexually active are often shown on TV as popular things to do. Because these behaviors happen so often on TV, the message that’s sent is “everybody does it” with no harmful results. In addition, children may think that these behaviors will make them more grown up. Ten percent of adolescent girls in the United States get pregnant each year. Injury is the leading cause of death among teenage boys, and of these deaths about 50% involve alcohol. Although TV viewing is not the only way that your child learns about sexuality and alcohol use, the risks and results of these behaviors are not given equal time on TV. Programs on many cable TV channels are often even more extreme in their use of sex, firearms, and alcohol as normal accepted activity. This makes it even more important for children to learn and talk about these issues, both in the family and in school.

Commercials The average child sees more than 20,000 commercials during the 1,300 to 1,400 hours of TV viewed each year. Advertisers spend roughly $700 million a year to make sure that their sales pitches reach large numbers of children. More than 60% of the ads are for sugared cereal, candy, fatty foods, and toys. Among the top TV advertisers are corporations that aim all or most of their sales efforts at children. More and more cartoon programs are “program-length commercials” (toy-based TV programs). These programs sell toys by disguising sales pitches as entertainment. Most young children do not understand the difference between a program designed to entertain and a commercial designed to sell.

What can parents do?

Set limits First, know how many hours of TV your child watches. Then, limit viewing to no more than 1 or 2 quality hours per day. Be firm about reducing the amount of TV your child watches. “Lock out” devices are available so that certain channels cannot be seen, such as adult programming on cable TV. Remember that before TV, families found other means for entertainment and fun, and such options are still available. Your child may not like being kept away from the TV set. TV is designed to lure viewers and programs are often filled with ads that promote other programs. The word-of-mouth between children on playgrounds and in school cafeterias as to which TV programs are “hot” or “cool” is powerful. Children will not give up TV easily; they need to be given other options. Your children may choose to play video games as an option to TV, but keep in mind that hours spent playing home video or computer games are still hours spent in front of a screen of some kind. You need to decide whether time playing electronic games will be considered as part of your children’s total TV exposure. Establishing better TV habits for your child is well worth the effort. TV watching is often more habit than choice — and some even believe that TV watching is addictive. Don’t be surprised if your child goes through a sort of “withdrawal” when TV time is reduced. You can make this easier by offering other activities such as sports, games, chores, reading, talking, or hobbies. You can help even more by joining your child in these activities. Because children often copy their parents’ behavior, a review of your own TV viewing habits may also help.

Plan When you limit TV time, your child will have to plan his or her viewing time carefully to get the most enjoyment from TV — and you can help choose positive programming. Using a TV guide or newspaper is better than flipping the channels to “see what’s on.” The set should be turned on only to certain programs, and it should be turned off when they are over. Approach a TV program as you would a movie. Decide which show to see, watch it with your child, and then talk about it after it ends. This will make TV of more value to your child. As an alternative to television, look for quality children’s videos that you can buy or rent. Many have received awards for quality programming. The Coalition for Quality Children’s Videos based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is an organization that awards a “Kids First!” seal of approval to certain videos that have been judged as high-quality programming for children.

Participate As your child begins to learn how to live in the world, you are the most important role model; TV, however, is also a very important source of information. Your child will learn the most from your views about the TV shows you see together. Know what your child watches on TV. When possible, watch TV together and discuss the programs. The TV programs may help you discuss topics that are difficult or sensitive — family life, love, sex, war, prejudice, violence, etc. A poor program might turn out to be a good learning experience if you are there to help your child get the right message, while the best program might be wasted without your help to think about and question what was seen. If your schedule does not allow you to watch TV with your children, talk to them about what they watched and what they thought and felt about the program.

The Children’s Television Act of 1990
In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act to make sure that TV stations pay attention to the needs of children viewers. Under this law, stations must air educational and informational shows for children and limit the amount of advertising during those shows to 12 minutes per hour on weekdays and 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends. The Children’s Television Act does not address the content of individual shows, but focuses instead on what’s missing from the overall schedule of any particular station. The Act aims to reach a better balance of the shows offered to children ages 2 to 16. TV stations that do not follow the law risk losing their licenses. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the government agency responsible for making sure stations obey the law. But for the law to be even more effective, parents can keep tabs on TV stations in their community and report any violations to the FCC.

Some steps parents can take:

• Watch children’s programs, focusing on one station at a time. Does the station’s schedule include shows that educate and inform children?
• Record some children’s shows and keep track of the number of minutes per hour the station shows commercials.
• If a station does not appear to be complying with the Children’s Television Act, inform the FCC by addressing a written complaint to the Chief, Mass Media Bureau, FCC (1919 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20554). All commercial TV stations must give the FCC a list of their children’s programming efforts every 5 years when their licenses come up for renewal.
The Children’s Television Act was passed with the needs of children in mind and enables parents to hold stations accountable for not considering the needs of children viewers. If you forbid certain programs or your child is already watching a program and you object to the subject matter, say so and then explain why. Remember, it is your job to control what your child sees on TV.

Help resist commercials Don’t expect your child to resist ads for toys, candy, and snack foods without your help. Good habits formed in childhood are the foundation of good habits in adulthood. When your child asks for products advertised on TV, explain how TV makes viewers want things they do not need — and some that may even be harmful. Identify ads as such. Five- and six-year-olds can learn the difference between ads and program content.
Help your child to understand that advertisers target ads to certain programs. When a toy or cereal advertisement comes on during a cartoon, tell your child why advertisers chose to buy time during his or her favorite show. With the right guidance, your child will learn that TV has positive and negative values.

There are ways to avoid ads:

Express your views One of the best ways to change ads or programs is to call your local TV station. When you are offended or pleased by something on TV, let the station manager know. Write or call the network and/or the program’s sponsor. Stations, networks, and sponsors care about parents’ concerns. Don’t call or write just to complain — be specific. It is also important to voice your approval. Programs you like may not get high ratings, and your support might help keep them on the air. If you think a commercial misleads viewers, write down the product name, channel, and time when you saw this commercial and describe your concerns. Then call your local Better Business Bureau with this information, or send it to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, Council of Better Business Bureau Inc, 845 Third Ave, New York, NY 10022.

Talk with your children If you see a topic on TV that interests you — such as homelessness, drug use, or family problems — help your child relate to the issue with an example the child can understand. Do you know someone with a similar problem? Ask your child what he or she would do in a similar situation. Point out that the TV world is not real. Young children, in particular, sometimes have a hard time knowing what is real and what is not. If your child is very young, he or she may not be able to tell the difference between a commercial, a cartoon, or real life. While your child watches a program, explain that a character on TV is make-believe. Ask questions about what the character might do in real life, and then explain that some actions do not always apply during day-to-day living. TV can teach that some people are more important than others; it may show African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, women, or certain ethnic groups as stereotypes. Not every hero is a white male. Let your child know that everyone has special qualities, even though TV may not always show it.

Get help Help is available. The first step is to talk with your pediatrician. Pediatric offices may have available information about TV or know how to get it through the American Academy of Pediatrics. Also, many public service groups publish newsletters that review programs and describe how to make TV viewing better for you and your child. Don’t overlook sources of help that are close to home such as your Parent/Teacher Association (PTA). The parents of your child’s friends and classmates are useful allies. If you can get together with other parents and agree to enforce similar rules about the amount of TV watching and which programs are suitable, you can avoid some of the intense peer pressure that makes it difficult for your child to follow your viewing guidelines.
One useful approach is to organize a “TV awareness week”: Children agree to cut down TV viewing and then report on what activities they do instead. TV is more than just a way of handling boredom. It can be like an uninvited guest, teaching your child lessons that you do not endorse. You must know what your child is watching and help him or her understand and learn what is seen.

Managing media in children’s lives: selected resources
Parenting in a TV Age
This parent-education curriculum kit is designed to help parent groups explore the many issues TV brings into the lives of children. The kit teaches parents to set TV limits, cope with commercials, set standards for violent and sexual content, counteract stereotypes portrayed on TV, and much more.
To order contact:
Center for Media Literacy
1962 S Shenandoah
Los Angeles, CA 90034
It’s the Law
Featuring interviews with news correspondent Bill Moyers, Rep Ed Markey (D-Mass), and others, this video examines TV’s impact on children and explains how the Children’s TV Act of 1990 can help improve the quality of children’s programs. To order, contact:
Center for Media Education
1511 K St NW
Suite 518
Washington, DC 20005

Talking With TV
This booklet tells parents how to use entertainment TV as a guide to spark discussions with children and teens about values, sexuality, and other sensitive and important subjects explored by TV shows. The booklet also features plot summaries of new and returning shows aimed at preteens and teens and lists the addresses of major cable and TV networks, TV production companies, and other organizations concerned with TV. To order, contact:
Advocates for Youth
1025 Vermont Ave NW
Suite 210
Washington, DC 20005