Breaking the TV Habit

Expert help for kids who spend too much time in front of the tube.

Viewing Habits

It's easy to let your child fall into the TV trap. First you let him unwind with a cartoon after school. Then you let him keep the television on while you make dinner. Before you know it, he -- like the average American kid -- is watching four hours a day, well above the limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

TV has a powerful hold on most school-age kids. It provides the effortless entertainment they crave. By this age, children can also have a measure of control over what they watch: They've mastered the remote, and their reading and time-telling skills help them figure out when their favorite programs are scheduled. "They're also intensely curious, and TV is one way they learn about the world," says Jane Healy, PhD, author of Your Child's Growing Mind. "But it's imperative that parents set limits on both content and the amount of screen time."

Here's why: Early grade-schoolers lack the ability to regulate their own viewing habits. And a child who's constantly glued to the set is missing out on the chance to exercise, socialize, study, and play. Numerous studies have shown that young kids who watch too much TV struggle with schoolwork and are more likely to behave aggressively and become overweight than those who don't. Want to curb your child's viewing habits? Here are seven strategies you may not have tried yet.

Keep a Diary

A recent study says adults watch more than four and a half hours of TV per day, so chances are your child isn't the only one viewing. Logging in everyone's TV time (including your own) can be enlightening -- and shocking. Do you leave the set on while you do housework? Does your husband grab the remote as soon as he gets home? Do you watch TV during dinner (84 percent of all families do so at least some of the time)? If so, it's time to reform your viewing habits -- for your child's sake.

Play "Hide and Don't Seek"

An idle TV is tempting, but not if your child can't see it. Put a decorative throw over your set. Or try this solution from Lauren Mauck, of Soledad, California: To reduce her 6-year-old daughter Teagan's viewing, Mauck moved the TV to a closet that is only opened on weekends. "Nobody misses the TV during the week because we don't notice it," Mauck says.

Let Them "Buy" into Your System

Wendy Breedlove, of Oregon City, Oregon, gives her 7-year-old son, Alex, two 15-minute coupons per day that he cashes in for TV time. He earns bonus tickets by doing extra chores. Alex can either spend them each day or save them up for a movie on the weekend.

Reward Reading

On average, a kid spends four times as many hours watching TV as he does reading for fun. To even out that ratio, Sue Panilaitis, of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, set up a reading/TV exchange when each of her boys, Mike and Rob, entered first grade. For every minute of reading time (not including homework assignments), the boys earn a minute of screen time, up to a maximum of one hour. "I'm not the bad guy for limiting TV," says Panilaitis. "It's up to them."

Find Something Better to Do

For Carolyn Stonestreet, a mom from Overlook Park, Kansas, the best solution was to separate Josh, 8, and Matt, 6, from the set. She signed Josh up for the Cub Scouts, had both boys join a soccer league, and started setting up more playdates. Soon enough, their TV habit faded. "They had so much fun trying new things and seeing their friends that they were too busy to think about cartoons," Stonestreet says.

Establish a TV-Free Family Night

Your child won't object to being blacked out if you spend the evening together. Play Monopoly Junior, do a group puzzle, or try a card game like Old Maid. You can even have your kids help prepare dinner. Diane Schilder, of Arlington, Massachusetts, says her children, Joe, 8, and Iris, 6, look forward to communal cooking. "It's fun, and it gives us a chance to catch up with each other," she says.

Go Cold Turkey

Join National TV Turnoff Week from April 24 through 30. Spending some time away from the tube may make your child realize that he doesn't really need it -- or miss it.

Raise a Media-Savvy Kid

It's unlikely you'll get your child to stop watching TV completely, but you can help him become an informed viewer. One way to do that is to teach him to be critical of the many advertisements he'll see. Try these tactics.

  • Play "spot the commercials." Ask your child to tell you the difference between a television program and an advertisement. Discuss what the marketers do to make products seem attractive.
  • Give him a reality check. When you watch a show together, talk about whether the events could happen in the real world. If not, ask him to explain why not.
  • Practice "talk back." Encourage your child to speak directly to the TV when he sees something he disagrees with in a program or spots a false commercial claim.
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