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Using Television & the Internet Wisely & Sparingly

Dear Elizabeth,
My two 5-year-old twin grandchildren watch an awful lot of television. They also spend hours on their computer. How much TV viewing & internet use is too much?
Janet Hyde
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • Television & the internet can be positive tools to help your child learn
  • Set limits on what your child watches
  • Take an active role in your child’s viewing
Expert Advice
Tessa Jolls
Tessa Jolls
Center for Media Literacy
Make TV Viewing an Active Experience
Children often enjoy seeing the same DVD over and over again. Instead of letting your kids watch TV passively, watch alongside them and use this time to turn it into an active experience. So rather than just letting the DVD or TiVo run, parents can pause the story and discuss points they want to make. When children get used to seeing video as a take-off for discussion, viewing becomes a much more active process, and the children see that they can switch off the show to question or discuss or reflect on what they’re experiencing, too.

Ask Questions
Learning to question – and to ask the right questions -- gives children a way to keep developing. When watching television with your children, ask them questions, such as:
  • What is this? How is it put together?
  • What do I see or hear? What do I like or not like about this?
  • What might other people think and feel about this? What do I think and feel about this?
  • What does this tell me about how other people live and behave? Is anything or anyone left out?
  • Is this trying to tell me something? Is this trying to sell me something?
So, for example, you can ask young children, is this message trying to tell me something? Or is this message trying to sell me something? Our experience is that even very young children often know the difference.

Set Limits
Every household has its own rules, but the parents should be in charge of who makes the rules. Children imitate their parents. When they see that their parents turn off media to have family time together or to attend to other tasks, they understand that media isn’t a “constant.” Limiting children’s time watching TV or using the computer helps them realize that other priorities – like getting fresh air and exercise, playing with friends or with toys – are just as important, if not more so. Also, think of how media time –using the computer, watching TV, playing DVDs in the car – adds up over the course of a day.

Look for Quality Content
TV has V Chips and ratings and age-related programming blocks. These provide parents and providers with at least some guide on content. Many Internet browsers have parental controls. With the Internet, there’s no substitute for checking out the site yourself and seeing what’s there. But definitely, parents should look for shows or sites that support the family’s values, so that violence, language, sexual depictions, commercialization and other red flags are taken into account before letting children have access.

Impact of Advertising
Today, we have evidence that commercials and excessive viewing affect young children dramatically. For example, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children ages 2-to-7 see about 12 food ads a day – or 4,400 a year. About 34% of all food ads directed at children are for candy and snacks. We now know that children prefer the specific foods that they see advertised. Furthermore, the likelihood of obesity among low-income multi-ethnic preschoolers (aged one to five years) increased for each hour per day of TV or video viewed. Children with TV sets in their rooms are more likely to be obese. These are significant health impacts that parents need to be concerned about.
Child Care Provider Comments
Laura Moller-Leon
Laura Moller-Leon
Mother of two
We don’t watch a lot of TV at home, but I allow my five-year-old to use the internet. He’s limited to no more than 30 minutes on the computer. When we are online, I monitor everything he sees. He has a folder saved on the desktop and it is filled with all the websites that we allow him to visit. For example, he visits kid’s websites, like the PBS Kids website, regularly. We read stories from the sites, play age-appropriate games. We’ll even watch television episodes online.
Diane Ferguson
Diane Ferguson
Child care provider for 3 years
We very seldom watch TV. Only on rainy days when the kids can’t go outside and play do I let them watch a little bit. We will mostly watch “Sesame Street.” I only allow about 15-20 minutes, no more than a half-hour at a time. It has to be educational and age-appropriate. I always make sure that I am around and can see what they are watching. I will get involved and ask them questions as we watch. We talk about colors we see, what Cookie Monster is up to that day, how he is feeling. If there is music or dancing, we’ll get up and start dancing as well.
Maria Segura
Maria Segura
Grandmother of a 3-year-old
I always make sure television viewing is age-appropriate. We usually watch “Sesame Street.” My grandchild learned about colors and how to count from the show. There’s always a good message in “Sesame Street.”

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Topic: Early Learning Areas
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