Healthy Kids    

Too much tube time

Why kids need to be unplugged from electronics

Traditional images of childhood often include Norman Rockwell-like depictions of a rosy-cheeked child playing leap-frog outdoors, or dutifully practicing scales on the piano. But images of a typical 21st-century childhood will likely include a kid sitting on a low chair in front of a video screen, joystick in hand.

Recent studies show that kids are spending too much time in front of a computer or television screen. While it can be constructive for parents to familiarize their children with the benefits of modern technology, since even young children are able to navigate their way around a computer, where does Mom or Dad draw the line? How do you know if your child getting is too much screen time?

You don’t want your kid to be a couch potato, but the reality is that technology is an ever-increasing part of our lives. The business world uses pen and paper less and less, and most schools use computers in their curriculum, starting in the early elementary grades.

It’s even following us into unexpected places: The August 2008 issue of American Libraries magazine featured an article on gaming in libraries, revealing that 77 percent of libraries contacted for the article’s study actually support video and computer games. They claim that such gaming can increase opportunities for interaction among different generations as more people are brought into the library. 

“There are many advantages to computers and gaming at the library. Kids today are growing up in a world where computers are and will continue to be a major part of their lives,” says Maureen McGrath, programming and outreach coordinator at the Julia L. Butterfield Library in Cold Spring.

McGrath says that the challenge is for children to use them in a positive way. “You can play chess and many other games that enhance mathematical thinking and problem solving skills. There are wonderful games that help children to learn letters, numbers and early reading skills.”

However, McGrath points out, “Young children should have limits set on the amount of time they spend on a computer. Active play with other children is, of course, vital to their development and well-being.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also stresses the importance of limit-setting by parents. They recommend that children under age two not watch any television and that those older than two years watch no more than one to two hours per day of quality TV and videos.

Why such limits? Christian Hietanen, MD a pediatrician with TLC Pediatrics in Fishkill, says, “Children may be the most vulnerable between birth and school age to certain negative side effects of media use, such as obesity, aggression, fear, and sleep disturbances.”

Kingston mother of two Linda Simmons says keeping young kids away from television isn’t as easy as it sounds. “Before I had kids I swore I’d never let them watch TV,” she says. “But there were times when I’d need to get work done around the house and putting on a video seemed the easiest way to keep my daughters occupied.”

Studies have indicated that children who consistently spend more than four hours per day watching TV are more likely to be overweight. “There is definitely a relationship between television use and obesity,” Dr. Hietanen points out. “Watching TV is a passive experience. It offers no opportunity for social play, interaction and sensory stimulation.”

Simmons says that while she allows some TV watching in her home for her young children, she places strict limits on that time. “Usually I put on a video just in the morning so I can get things done, then in the afternoon I get the kids outside to run around for some physical activity. I really try not to rely on TV as a babysitter, since my daughters are only two and four.”

There is also the concern that as some TV and video-game characters depict risky behaviors, kids who view violent acts are more likely to show aggressive behavior. Kaveri Subrahmanyam, psychologist and advisor of the Children’s Digital Media Center research organization, says, “Research does suggest that aggressive content is related to aggressive behavior and thoughts.”

She explains that time limits suggested by the AAP are reasonable, especially during elementary school years. “But more than time,” says Dr. Kaveri, “computers should be in public spaces such as a den, and parents should talk to young children about safe surfing – not talking to strangers, being truthful and careful about what you believe, and not giving others personal information.”

Parents play an important role in getting kids unhooked from electronics by modeling the type of screen time habits they desire their children to adopt. Going straight to the computer or flicking on the television as soon as we get home sends the message that these things are a priority. They may also want to find out what sort of viewing habits their children’s friends may exhibit around their children; when the child goes on playdates, will he be sitting in front of the television for two hours, or will he be actively playing?

Wondering how to replace tube time with family time, without a lot of tears? Click here. You'll also find some fun ways to get kids away from the tube this winter here.

While there is no way to avoid the technology that surrounds us, a balance can be struck. Just as a parent can monitor the quality of what their children see on television and computer screens, they can also monitor the quantity of time spent. Informative and educational programs and games can be chosen, and most of all, time limits appropriate for your family can be set. With guidance and consistency from their parents, kids can reap the benefits of technology and still have time to play leapfrog outdoors!

Rani AldenLong is a mother of one living in Cold Spring.