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Nearly all experts would agree that most children spend too much time in front of a television, game system or computer screen. The average American child spends between 25-38 hours a week consuming media. Frequently we hear of the ill-affects of television violence, or programming with adult language, content or questionable values. Certainly, there are plenty of poor programs, but what about the good stuff? Can children have too much of even quality educational programs? Yes.
Media is a lot like food. If we eat the wrong foods or eat too much of even good foods, our health will suffer. Likewise, media consumption that is inappropriate for our development will have negative results. The key is finding a healthy balance. At appropriate ages and in appropriate quantities, educational programs such as Sesame Street, and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood can be beneficial to children. However, many child development experts believe that for very young children, television viewing or computer games are simply the wrong type of activity to promote optimal development. For the most part, watching television is a sedentary activity that requires no human interaction. It does little to develop young brains. Even educational programs that are interactive and specifically designed for young children fall short of the benefits of true social interaction.
Research on early brain development shows that infants and toddlers have a critical need for direct interaction with parents and other significant caregivers for healthy growth and development. Young children learn about the world in very active ways. They are little scientists that put their physical senses actively to work. More importantly, they learn about relationships by exploring how their actions influence others. Through these two-way interactions, children develop healthy attachments. They learn to love and be loved. They learn lessons that no television show can teach. It is these human interactions and "hands-on" manipulations of the world that stimulate brain growth and prepare the way for life-long learning and healthy social, emotional and cognitive development. Patricia Kuhl, a researcher at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington has found that social interaction is essential for speech learning. Her colleague at the Institute, Andrew Melzoff, has likewise found social interaction to be indispensible to the social-emotional development of infants.
As children grow older, some educational programs can be helpful. Both "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street" have demonstrated positive educational benefits. Educational software can be useful for older preschoolers, or school-aged children if it is developmentally in tune with their needs.
Still, the majority of a preschooler's time should be spent in hands-on activities, such as coloring, cutting, pasting, climbing, building with blocks, and doing imaginative things such as dressing up, or playing games. These activities help preschoolers learn that there are consequences to actions and help them develop socially and emotionally.
As parents, helping our children find a healthy balance with the media that they consume may be one of the biggest challenges we face. Here are a few suggestions as to where one might start.
1. Limit Children's total media time to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day.
2. Remove television sets or computers from children's bedrooms. Children with televisions in their rooms watch an extra five and half hours per week and don't do as well in school. Keeping televisions and computers in public spaces is also good wisdom for older children and adults.
3. Discourage television viewing for children younger than 2 years, and encourage more interactive activities that will promote proper brain development such as talking, playing, singing, and reading together.
4. Monitor the shows children and adolescents are viewing. Most programs should be informational, educational, and nonviolent. New televisions have the v-chip. Use it to filter out inappropriate content. Remember, it's hard to monitor televisions and computers in private spaces. Put them in a public area such as a family room with the screen or monitor facing out.
5. View television programs along with children, and discuss content. This makes it more interactive and allows parents and caregivers to reinforce important values.
6. Use recording devices wisely record or play back high-quality education programming for children on your time schedule. Primetime is a popular time for children to watch television, but the programming is primarily designed for adults. Recording children's programs that aired earlier can help ensure the quality and appropriateness of programming. The many DVD rental services or online streaming services also can provide a means for greater control over our viewing (or a greater challenge, if unmonitored).
7. Resist the temptation to use the computer or television as means to either reward children or punish them. It often as the unintended side effect of elevating its importance in the lives of children.
8. On computers, install a filtering program, and learn its features and how to use it. Good filtering programs allow you to view a history of which sites (including chat rooms) have been visited and when, as well as a record of incoming and outgoing e-mails.
9. Encourage alternative entertainment for children, including reading, athletics, hobbies, and creative play.
Finally, one word of caution. Years ago, in an effort to effectively monitor television viewing in our home, I installed a number of electronic controls which would budget viewing time, restrict certain hours, and block certain media. I thought my plan was sophisticated and cleaver until one day when I ask my daughter to join us in a fun family event. She sighed, and said, "I'd like to, but I still have three hours of television I have to watch before the end of day or then I'll lose my time when it resets for the new week." I was flabbergasted. My daughter was choosing television viewing over a family outing. By putting so many controls on the television, I had elevated its importance and created a monster. I have since come to believe that, in general, it is more effective to invite our children to the light than chase them from the darkness. In other words, while reasonable controls on "technological distractions" may be useful, it may be more effective to encourage our children to serve, to socialize, to work, to actively play, and to live life fully. Perhaps Elder Neal A. Maxwell said it best when he noted, "Families which work, pray, and play together will usually survive spiritually. Let us, as parents and grandparents, so love, tutor, and train our youth that the sweetness they experience in their Latter-day Saint homes will, thereafter, make the world taste sour to them!" (Neal A. Maxwell, "'Unto the Rising Generation'," Ensign, Apr 1985, 8)