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How Much Television is Too Much? Science Weighs in

Should Parents Worry About Television?

Scientists have it in for television. On the surface, television seems to be a big, bad creature that corrupts youth. Promising athletes are transformed into immobile, morbidly obese balls of flesh. Courtesy of Showtime, kind, compassionate children become violent, sex-crazed lunatics. If your kid is typical, television plays a big part in their life, so pay attention.

Howard Kalin, used with permission
Source: Howard Kalin, used with permission

According to a study in the October 2009 issue of Child Development, television is destroying our families. Here is the press release:

A new study looks for the first time at the effect of background TV on interactions between parents and young children. Using an experimental design, researchers found that when a TV was on, both the quantity and quality of interactions between parents and children dropped. This study challenges the common assumption that background TV doesn't affect very young children if they don't look at the screen.

Gulp! Keep your television and you are killing your family, one conversation at a time. This study, just like similar studies, received a ton of media attention. The consensus is that one of the easiest ways to improve the quality of our life, our children, and our family, is to turn off the TV.

But let's get into the details. Because if there is one thing I learned about the media and research, it's that the details make all the difference and they are often the first to go. In this particular study, scientists observed 50 kids between the ages of 1-3 and their parents for one hour. For half of the one-hour session, parents and children were in a playroom without TV; for the other 30 minutes, parents chose a program to watch. Now let's go back to the conclusion. Watching TV interferes with the quantity and quality of conversations between parents and children. No $#@! I have some titles for other studies:

"Books are evil -- Tell your kids to stop reading, now!"

If kids have a book open and they're immersed in the story, this makes it nearly impossible to make friends. Do you want your kid to be a lonely hermit sleeping in a garbage compactor, surviving on week old bagels?

"The ignored, untreated cause of erectile dysfunction -- iPhones!"

Checking your email and reading the latest news on your iPhone while naked atop another adult is going to harm your sexual performance. Go ahead, see for yourself.

Personally, I don't mind if researchers want to study whether television is harmful. What I suggest is that they ask the right questions. Instead of fighting the content of what people do, scientists should focus on the function. If someone watches television to recharge their batteries after intense socializing (because perhaps they are highly sensitive) and it works, then I say let them keep their strategy. If watching television helps an active, social child unwind at the end of the day and transition into their nighttime routine of brushing teeth, getting into their pajamas, and going to sleep, so be it. Sounds like a perfect strategy to regulate their mood. The reasons that people watch television can range from the helpful (learning about astronomy, recharging their energy supply) to the unhelpful (procrastinating from studying for an exam, avoiding other people because socializing is anxiety provoking).

Let's move beyond the silly argument of how much television people should watch and focus on the motives behind the movements. If you are a parent, the amount of time that your children watch television should not be yet another area for you to stress about. There are enough important, stressful areas that warrant your attention. Let this be your mantra -- focus on function, not content.

Science should speak for itself but if the questions are silly then the data and the conclusions are going to be silly. In the absence of good research, nobody should be turning to scientists for opinions about how to have fun. Once scientists move outside their area of expertise, they are just as stupid as anyone else. Myself included.

NOTE: more data on the complex issue of whether sitting in front of a screen crushes your kid's soul (anyone claiming a definitive, intolerant position is not to be trusted).

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a psychologist and professor of psychology at George Mason University who regularly give keynotes and workshops to business executives, organizations, schools, parents, retirees, and health professionals on well-being. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops related to this topic or others, contact me by going to