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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/24/2009

THE GROUP: How Much Is Too Much Screen Time?

By Valerie Strauss

Today The Answer Sheet’s group of moms discusses kids and screen time. Please relate your own experiences in the comments section. Email The Sheet with issues you’d like us to address, and let us know if you want to join The Group.

THE FACTS:
Screen time is a big problem in many houses. Kids watch television, play video games and sit on the computer for several hours every day--even though experts at the prestigious Mayo Clinic say that children who get more than two hours of screen time a day are more likely than other kids to:

*Be overweight
*Get irregular sleep
*Bully other kids, show signs of depression or anxiety and have attention problems
*Have impaired academic performance.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that:

*Parents set a house rule that your children may spend no more than two hours a day of screen time. This is a recommendation, too, of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

*Computers and televisions are NOT placed in children’s rooms. children who have TVs in their room tend to spend almost 1 1/2 hours more in a typical day watching TV than their peers without a set in their room.

*Turn off the TV during family meal time.

*Don’t use TV to reward or punish a child; doing so makes TV seem even more important to children.

*Know what your kids are watching.

*Try a screen time log with your kids.

TODAY'S QUESTIONS
How much TV do you let your kids watch? How much time can they spend on the computer? How do you set and enforce the rules? How do you know what your kids are doing on the computer and what they watch on television? If your kids are on Facebook, do you monitor it and if so how? Also, what are your main concerns about the time your child spends in front of a screen?

This Week’s GROUP:

Meg Arcadia is a teacher currently homeschooling a 10-year-old boy, and a mom with a 3-year-old son.
Charlotte Osborn-Bensaada is a legislative librarian with one child in a D.C. public school public and a 3-year-old starting in a program at a charter school.
Peg Willingham works for a non-profit health research organization and she lives in Virginia, where her daughter attends a public high school.
Linda McGhee is a psychologist, school counselor and professor, who lives in the District and works in Bethesda. Her son is in fifth grade in a Maryland private school.
Jamie Shor founded and operates the PR Collaborative in the District. She lives in Montgomery County, where her son is in elementary school and her daughter is in middle school.
Valerie Strauss is The Answer Sheet.


THE DISCUSSION

PEG:
Now that school is back in session and my daughter has sports practice two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, there just isn’t much screen time available during the week, but weekends are a different story.

She has wanted a TV in her room for years, but to date we have said no, and in practice she does not watch much TV other than videos. However, she does have her own laptop, and even though all the advice about this encourages parents to put the computer in a family area rather than in the child’s room, we just have not enforced that at all, and it is one of her favorite leisure activities.

We tried using parental controls on the computer, but they blocked too many things. Occasionally my husband - who is our in-house IT guru - checks the viewing history to see which sites she has visited. The good news is they are innocuous, fairly boring sites related to shopping. The bad news is they are terrible, materialism/consumerism-fueling sites related to shopping.

I heard a radio story recently that said that Chinese children, who rarely have siblings due to the one-child policy there, spend a lot of time online because they don’t have brothers and sisters to play with.

My daughter is an only child, so I wondered if this is true for her as well, although I think most children love to spend time on the computer. My main regret is that she spends very little time reading books, and I feel quite certain that screen time has gobbled up what would have been reading time the olden days.

My daughter just turned 14 and wants to get on Facebook and does NOT want me to "friend" her. I confess I can empathize; when I was 14, the thought of having my mother see what I said to my friends would have been appalling. I know I should insist on seeing everything she does on Facebook, but I am inclined not to.

LINDA:
We have a fairly strict policy during the week (especially during the school year) but are more liberal on the weekends. However, I must admit that these are not hard and fast rules. This year, however, 5th grade homework is heavier so TV becomes less of a concern, since the time remaining after homework is done is short.

I count all media into the time limit. So there is limit on total time on TV/computer/DS/iPod per day. No TV or computer in my son’s bedroom but DS is allowed. Facebook is not a worry as of yet.

I really worry about a child’s ability to relate to others face-to-face given the amount of texting, tweeting, I-M-ing [instant messaging], blogging and chat rooms. Peg is worried about only children and this too is my concern. Yet I wonder if this is a universal concern. I read a paper that said that kids’ language and school work increasingly reflect the text/I-M shorthand that is often riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. Also, kids have this sense of invincibility online and believe that texts/online messages are confidential.

MEG:
I am the mother of a very active three-year-old boy. Fortunately, he wants to be outside running and playing as much as possible. It is easy to tear him away from the TV.

My husband and I do not have a strict policy on the amount of time he can watch--partly because he is three, partly because everyday is different, and, most importantly, because I do not want to break my own rules if dinner is taking a bit longer to put together or if an important phone call comes in.

My son usually watches one or two shows in the morning while he is waking up and eating breakfast. He may watch another show or two in the evening before dinner as his day is winding down.

He is such an active kid that I find he needs some passive down time. And on the weekend he gets to choose a movie at Blockbuster. He will watch it a couple of times over the following days. TV is not all bad. Currently, his favorite show is “Sid the Science Kid.” It is an absolutely fabulous show for pre-schoolers.

Last week he watched an episode in the morning. That day Sid and his classmates were collecting leaves, observing them and classifying them. We turned off the TV and my son asked if we could go on a leaf hunt too. And that is just what we did.

We walked around the neighborhood for over an hour collecting leaves having an in depth discussion about their size, color, texture. It was a fun and educational morning.

When it comes to TV, I am more strict about what he watches. No violence, no silly "SpongeBob" (at least not yet). There have also been a number of studies on the direct impact of TVs in kids’ bedrooms and low test scores. So he will not have a TV in his room.

We have not crossed the technology bridge yet. I will say that I plan on monitoring Internet activity.

My best friend’s daughter is in fifth grade. I will tell you what I told her daughter. Do not text, IM, email anything that would embarrass you if your parents, grandparents, teacher, principal, etc. read it because nothing on the Internet is private. Assume everyone has access to your words.

Everything is great in moderation and with parental guidance. There is so much fun to have and new things to discover. Technology is a great tool!

CHARLOTTE:
I got rid of cable so there was a limited menu of interesting cartoons. Most days we keep it to one hour a day. I tried to ban it during the week, but it was just too helpful when I was trying to get dinner on the table. I ban it after that point.

Weekends are a different matter. If it is a nice weekend we try and get outside and avoid TV as much as possible all weekend. If it is a yucky weekend let’s just say we gorge on TV. As for computer screen time, I only allow the games on PBS Kids or a set of math and reading games I have bookmarked. That may result in a couple of hours a week.

My 3-year-old son however has discovered cartoons and You Tube and that has been a problem because there are a lot of options.

I also don’t own any of the video game systems. I contemplate a Wii but I just can’t imagine another issue I have to keep policing. Have not faced the bigger issues of Facebook etc.

JAMIE:
This is such a tough one since personally there is nothing I like more than to melt into the couch and zone out to the TV at the end of the day.

On the TV front, I am finding this actually becoming less of an issue as my kids are now so busy with sports and other activities, it has typically now become their last thought of the day. We still need to be vigilant when it comes to my son’s video games as that has become a bit of a passion for him.

The challenge as they get older is that certain TV shows ("Gossip Girl" springs to mind) are part of the water cooler talk if you will at school the next day. We watch those types of shows together (my daughter has actually found a good partner in her mother these activities).

My daughter is on Facebook and we are “friends” on it. It is part of how they communicate and by and large she and her friends do so with respect.

VALERIE:
Effectively limiting screen time is one of my failings. My older daughter moderates herself, but my 13-year-old daughter could, if allowed, live on the computer--with the television on in the background--every waking hour.

I was surprised to hear that the official recommendation for daily screen time is no more than two hours. I think two hours out of 24 is a lot (even though many days my daughter easily surpasses it).

I understand Jamie’s dilemma: I, too, like television. I even like some of the shows my kids like; I confess that I think "SpongeBob" is funny, though I can’t watch 20 shows in a row like they can.

I also know that my youngest daughter doesn’t talk to her friends on the phone like I did when I was young; she talks on the computer, both by instant messaging and by video chat. Does socializing count as screen time?

She is a songwriter and uses her computer to listen to music as well as write. Does that count?

I don’t know the answer to this but I worry about the long-term physical effects from all this time in front of a computer.

In any case, we have agreed that she will be in front of a screen no more than two hours a day. Making sure that happens is another story.

I realize that a discussion of Facebook monitoring is a longer conversation--but stay tuned on The Answer Sheet today when a high school senior discusses his reaction to adult participation on the social network site.

Readers: Please tell us your thoughts and experiences about these issues.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 24, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  The Group, screen time, television  
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Comments

Our boys are 3 and 6 so we haven't had much trouble with screen time so far. We don't have cable but the DTV converter box gets us 24-7 WETA kids and that is TV for them. They don't yet use the computer and we haven't gotten a gaming system. We'll get there soon enough and hope that it doesn't become a battle.

Linda said "So there is limit on total time on TV/computer/DS/iPod time"
The old guy asks: What's a "DS?"

Posted by: KS100H | September 24, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

As the parent of a high-schooler whose papers are written on the computer, who does most of her research on the net (sites recommended by her teachers) Also, she coordinates her work schedule with her boss via e-mail, reads the weekly update e-mails from her sports teams, etc. All this means she can easily spend well more than two hours a day on screen time, just doing the things she has to do. I wish they would differeniate betweenn surfing the web for fun, playing video games and watching TV versus the things we all have to do.
As for those activities I have found I generally don't have to worry during the school year (between homework, work, sports, etc.) she doesn't have time.
When she was younger, having alternate activities helped more than saying no more TV - it was do you want to go bike riding or help me bake cookies, or have you done your homework, etc.

Linda why are you limiting I pod time? Unless it is at the dinner table where there should be conversation or during homework time when you need to concentrate why is the ipod any different than background music? Unless you mean the videos or games.

Posted by: mom_of_1 | September 24, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

My 8-year old daughter is not allowed to watch any videos/TV during the school week Except for Mondays, of course, because as an attendee of a Fairfax County public school, all of her Mondays are half-days.(Seriously.) On the weekends, she can watch about 90 mins (a movie) plus an hour of computer time per day. She has no DS and no Wii, just a CD player boom-box for KidzBop (cleaned-up pop tunes). And yes, she is an only child of two full-time working parents with commutes. As a result, she is a very creative kid and still very much into slightly younger entertainment such as playing with stuffed animals, coloring and even Barbies once in a while. I do plan to start allowing her some computer time on school nights for semi-educational purposes such as googling something of interest or research something related to school. I find she is a little bit culturally behind, but frankly, I think that is a plus.

Posted by: conchfc | September 24, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

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