Suffer the Children

The case against labeling and medicating children, and effective alternatives for treating them

How Much TV Is Right for Kids?

A lot less than many parents (or kids) would like.

Over the years, I have counseled many parents to limit their child's TV-watching to one hour a day of PBS only and to keep the television turned off at other times. To this well intentioned advice, I am often met with looks of incredulity and even protests. "I like to watch the news when I come home from work," objected one father, who had brought in his son Bertie for an evaluation for ADHD. To this father I replied helpfully, "You could download the news on your I-pod and listen to it later when your son has gone to bed. Or watch it in your room later in the evening." His wife backed me up, "You could listen to the news on your I-pod when you are washing up the dinner dishes." Realizing he was outnumbered, the father capitulated, "If you think it will help Bertie." To this I nodded my assent. Of course it helps a child to have fewer media distractions when he is trying to focus on his homework. What ten-year-old kid can focus on reading or arithmetic with TV's, cell phones, video games, Face book, and I-pods screaming for his attention? Who could focus on algebra in a video arcade?

When giving this advice to parents, I always add that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents limit all "screen time"-TV, movies, video games, and computer games-to a total of one to two hours a day for children age two and over. For children under the age of two, the Academy recommends no screen time at all. The AAP (which is now beginning to sound like an ally of the Tiger Mother) also recommends that parents should not put a TV in their child's bedroom. The pediatricians who make these recommendations are concerned that violent shows can contribute to aggressive behavior and distractedness in children, and might even cause trauma. As most of us realize from our own experience, classic children's movies like Bambi can be terrifying to a four-year-old.

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Sometimes it helps to tell parents that I practice what I preach. For many years while my children were growing up, I limited their TV-watching to one hour of PBS a day. When young, they accepted this without protest. It helped that our next-door-neighbors chose to have no television set at all. It was a great treat for the neighbor kids to come over to our house to watch Sesame Street and Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood on our tiny TV set. But by the time my kids got to middle school, they began to protest that all their friends watched commercial television. My husband and I were nothing short of the meanest parents in town for preventing them from watching the shows that their friends did. Eventually, they learned to re-position our old fashioned satellite dish to commercial channels when we were not home. Charmed by their ingenuity, we grudgingly tolerated Beverly Hills 90210.

Now that my children are having children of their own, the tables are turned. What goes around comes around. Does my son allow his own little son to watch television? Not a chance! He and his wife have decided not to have TV in their home. Now who are the meanest parents in town?

Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D., is a family therapist and the author of Suffer the Children: The Case Against Labeling and Medicating and an Effective Alternative.

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