Children today are exposed to a remarkable variety of media, such as television shows, video/electronic games, live and recorded music and videos/DVDs. In fact, children of all ages spend much more than the recommended time -- less than two hours a day -- on the above activities.
We all want to believe that these TV programs, movies, songs and games are positive experiences for our children, with creative, educational and stimulating content. Unfortunately, this often is not the case. Concerns have been raised and continue to grow about the negative impact these media exposures may have on children's interpersonal skills, attention span and overall health. For example, excessive television watching has been associated with childhood obesity, poor school performance and more aggressive behavior.
Children receive many direct and indirect messages from the media, some of which encourage behaviors that may be harmful to their health. As a result, parents and other child care providers need to think closely about the types of media their children see or hear in their day-to-day lives.
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Keep these two things in mind — limit the quantity and maximize the quality. Some specific suggestions include:
- Avoid all television or video watching for children younger than 2 years of age.
- For children older than 2, limit all television, video/DVD, electronic/video game and computer time to less than two hours total per day.
- Make sure any television show or video movie is appropriate for your child. If possible, first carefully watch it yourself.
- Choose programs on public television or children's videos; both are free from commercials. Consider music videos for younger children, who enjoy singing and dancing.
- Limit your child's exposure to all media that have violence, adult language and adult themes, such as sex, alcohol and tobacco or drug use.
- Watch programs with your children and discuss them together, talking about issues raised by what they see. Do not forget to look closely at the advertisements, too.
- Never let your children watch television while doing homework.
- Keep televisions out of your children's bedrooms.
- Limit your own use of these media. Kids often want to do what their parents do.
- Turn off the television when you are not watching it. Record programs that contain adult content and watch them after your children are asleep.
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While television, movies, music and video games have been a part of our lives for decades, we now must add computers and the Internet to the list of things about which we need to worry.
Most U.S. households with children ages 8 to 17 years have computers, and most of these homes have an Internet connection. Even children who do not have an Internet connection at home can easily gain access to the Internet, at school, the public library or a friend's house. This makes it nearly impossible to restrict access to computers and the Internet, introducing all of us to a completely new set of risks.
This means parents must be ever cautious about protecting their children from dangers on the Internet, including:
- Inappropriate material — Children can stumble across material with sexual, hateful, violent or illegal content.
- Harassment — Children can be harassed through chat rooms, online bulletin boards or e-mail.
- Safety — Children could get physically or emotionally hurt by providing personal information and/or arranging a place to meet. They may not pay attention to the source of information they find on the Web, assume it is correct, and do something harmful to their health.
- Legal and financial — Children could put their family at risk by providing credit card information or by engaging in illegal activity (for example, buying drugs).
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Safer Web Surfing
So, how can parents and others who care for children minimize these risks? Start by setting rules with children for online use and discussing the potential risks, particularly with older adolescents.
Specific guidelines about computers and the Internet include:
- Tell your children never to disclose any personal or identifying information.
- Teach them never to respond to messages that are violent, obscene or threatening.
- Become familiar with the sites your children visit most frequently and the services they use the most.
- Keep the computer in a common room where others can see the screen (not in your child's bedroom).
- Use software that will block your children from accessing certain sites.
- Monitor chat room use by your children.
- Maintain access to your children's online accounts.
- Above all, spend time doing other activities with children, such as reading, hiking, biking and other hobbies.
Remember that it is important to talk with your child about how serious these risks can be. They must feel comfortable communicating with you, if any confusing or potentially dangerous situation ever presents itself.
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Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.