How much TV is too much?

“Kids Watching More Television” blared the headline in my local paper last week. Nielsen, the company that tracks TV viewing, had issued a report on the average hours per week that children spent in front of a TV screen during the last quarter of 2008. Another headline — “Toddlers watch 32 hours of TV a week” — summarized the news on TV-viewing by 2- to 5-year-olds; 28 hours was the number for children 6 to 11.

I had to read to the very end of the article to find the actual increase: Young children increased their daily TV-viewing by 7 minutes between 2007 and 2008; over the same time period, older children spent 3 more minutes a day watching TV.

What’s surprising — and maybe what’s newsworthy — is not the size of the change but that the number hasn’t gone down. Over the past quarter-century, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued increasingly specific guidelines on television watching by children. (The pediatrician’s group now recommends that children under the age of 2 watch no TV, and that older children watch no more than 1 to 2 hours a day.) Academic journals regularly publish articles that link this level of TV-watching among children with increased risks for obesity, attention problems, lower grades, violent behavior, body-image problems, sexualized behavior, alcohol and cigarette use, and drug abuse — and that doesn’t include issues specific to the youngest viewers, such as delays in language acquisition. This information filters down to us in all kinds of ways, including newspaper articles like the one I read last week. And what do we do? We watch more TV.

The Nielsen statistics don’t exactly reflect my own family’s situation. We don’t watch what the folks at Nielsen call “live TV.” But we understand the attraction, and we’re not immune to its effects. We have a TV — we call it “the TV” even though it receives no channels — that we use to watch DVDs and videos. Our children know the rule: No TV on school nights. When Ursula was a baby, I was fastidious about monitoring her time in front of a screen. Virgil, on the other hand, was 2 years old when I started writing a book and 4 when I finished. He watched a lot of videos during that time (although much less than 5 hours a day, which is about what 32 hours a week comes to). Is it meaningful, then, that Ursula wanders away from TVs and likes to spend a lot of time outside, and that Virgil rarely goes outside on his own and always seems to be asking whether he can watch a movie? Sometimes, when we’re crunched with deadlines, we relent, even on a school night. And so we perpetuate a problem we may have created.

It’s hard to talk about this issue without sounding preachy. But every hour our children watch TV is one hour less that they can spend connecting with what we used to call the real world, which includes other people, physical objects, and the natural world. “The biggest misconception is that it’s harmless entertainment,” said Dr. Vic Strasburger, a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the newspaper article. He also said, “Kids should not be watching five hours a day. They should be outside playing. They should be having books read to them.”

Here’s the question I come to: Do we not know enough yet to acknowledge the number of hours we spend watching television as a social problem? I hesitate to make the analogy, but I think of drinking. Adults in our country have had the freedom to drink socially since Prohibition was repealed. We allow for some number of people who are unable to control their drinking; we establish guidelines for drunkenness; and we prohibit children from drinking. I look at the numbers on television-watching, though, and I wonder: Has our TV-watching passed the equivalent of social drinking? What happens when we become a nation of alcoholics?

Learn more

• The report from Nielsen.
• Bullet points on TV watching and issues related to it. The information is slightly dated (from 2000) but well presented.
• A summary of the 2008 Nielsen report.
• Children & Nature Network includes links to research on the effects of TV-watching on children's experience of the outdoors, including a report on "Generation M" by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

Labels: , , , ,