We spoke to Parents advisor Michael Rich, MD, MPH, director of the Center on Media and Child Health, at the Children's Hospital Boston about the impact of TV and movies on kids.
How Much TV Should Kids Watch?
Q. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age 2 avoid all TV and kids 2 to 6 years old watch only one to two hours. Is that realistic?
A. Of course it is -- and I think most parents would be willing to go along with those recommendations if they realized how media affect their kids. Children definitely can live without television -- they did in the '50s.
Q. But things have changed a lot since then. We're surrounded by all kinds of media now.
A. We are -- it's the noisemaking wallpaper in our lives. But it distracts us from observing the world, interacting with one another, and even enjoying a moment of peace and reflection.
We may be more informed, but there's a toll on our physical, mental, and social health.
Q. So what are the negative effects?
A. One is obesity -- studies have found that kids who watch more TV are more likely to be overweight, and it's not just because they are sitting still. Most commercials promote processed, high-calorie foods, and kids crave the products they see in those ads. But the list of negative effects goes on: Exposure to media has been linked to smoking, sexual risks, eating disorders, and substance abuse.
Q. Are you concerned about violence?
A. Research shows violence in media increases anxiety, fear, aggressive behavior, poor sleep, and academic and attention problems among kids. Plus, kids who are entertained by violence can get desensitized and not take a stand against bullying -- making our schools and communities more dangerous.
Q. Do your own children watch television?
A. No. My wife and I have provided our kids, who are 2 and 4, with a variety of options for imaginary play, creativity, and physical activity. Since my children don't expect to watch TV, they never ask for it. It's a real treat when the 4-year-old gets to watch a favorite movie.
What About Educational Programming?
Q. Is educational programming better?
A. A bit better for older kids. But there are no positive effects for children under age 2. Their brains are not yet developed enough to learn from a screen. Even the "baby videos" might contribute to cognitive delays and cause real harm.
Q. It can't be all bad. Do television and videos have any positive effect on kids?
A. For children older than 2, some educational programs can help improve language skills. But it's important to choose interactive shows, like Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues. These programs are designed by education experts who know exactly what developmental skills to focus on for every age, and they demand thoughtful responses from the young viewers. So the information isn't just passively washing over a child. Also, age-appropriate, nonviolent video games can help kids learn about problem solving.
What About Movie Ratings?
Q. Switching gears, what do you think of movie ratings?
A. They don't work, and parents don't trust them. The movie-rating system is more than 40 years old. It's not based in science or focused on protecting our kids. Plus, the system is fundamentally flawed because films are rated by the same industry that profits from the sale of tickets. We don't ask butchers to certify the safety of the meat they are selling. Our children's minds deserve the same protection as their bodies.
Q. Is there a better option?
A. We need to revamp the ratings system to make it more science-based. Today, a movie that portrays smoking -- which strongly influences children to smoke -- might get a PG or a G rating, while another movie gets an R rating because it has nudity, even though there's no evidence that seeing a naked person hurts a child. The new system will tell parents what is portrayed by the film and how it may affect kids.
Q. Any final thoughts?
A. Parents need to think of TV, video games, and movies as powerful environmental factors affecting their kids' health. They need to be as concerned about the media their children consume as they are about the air kids breathe or the water they drink. The government needs to commit more funding to studying its health effects. And we need to teach kids to use media critically, not just soak up whatever they see.
Where Can I Learn More?
These organizations are taking action and speaking out for our kids.
Children's Digital Media Center (cdmc.georgetown.edu)
Check out new studies, books, and reports on interactive media from this five-university alliance.
Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org)
Log on to read free reviews of new children's movies, TV programming, and other media.
National Institute on Media and the Family (mediafamily.org)
Download "parent guides" to hot topics like TV ratings, advertising, and parental controls.
Center on Media and Child Health (cmch.tv)
Learn about the effects of media and sign up for a free newsletter that's filled with news, research, and helpful advice.
By the Numbers
74: The percentage of children who watch TV before they are 2.
43: The percentage of kids under age 2 who watch TV every day.
51: The percentage of homes where the TV is on most or all of the time.
33: The percentage of kids under age 6 who have a TV set in their bedroom.
63: The percentage of American homes that have a TV on during meals.
17: Billion dollars spent annually on commercials that are targeted at kids.
How Is Congress Trying to Help?
The Children and Media Research Advancement (CAMRA) act would authorize $95 million to support research into the effects of TV, computer games, and other media on children. First introduced in 2004 by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Sam Brownback (R-Kans.), the measure has made little progress so far. But its sponsors say there's a chance that an updated proposal will be considered this year. Show your support by contacting your elected officials.
Originally published in the July 2008 issue of Parents magazine.